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PDF on the Web

Documents described in markup languages such as HTML/XHTML delegate responsibility for many display decisions to the renderer. This means that an XHTML document can render quite differently across various web browser platforms. While the end user experience of an XHTML document can vary significantly depending on browser, platform, and screen resolution, a PDF file can be reasonably expected to look exactly the same to every viewer. The desire for greater control over user experience has led many authors to use the PDF format to publish online content. This is particularly true for order forms, catalogues, brochures, and other documents which are primarily formatted for printing. The ubiquity of the Adobe Reader web browser and wide corporate availability of easy to use WYSIWYG PDF authoring have further enticed many (mostly corporate) web authors to publish a wider variety of information as PDF.

Critics of this practice cite several reasons for avoiding it. The major one is that the inflexibility of PDF rendering makes it difficult to read on screen: it does not adapt to the window size nor the reader’s preferred font size and font family, as classic XHTML web page does. PDF files tend to be significantly larger than XHTML/SVG files presenting the same information, making it difficult or impossible for users with low-bandwidth connections to view them. Adobe Reader, the de facto standard PDF viewer, has historically been slow to start and caused browser instability, particularly when run alongside other browser plugins (Adobe Reader 7 addressed many of these concerns, but is not available under Windows 98/ME). Adobe Reader is also unavailable in current versions on many alternative operating systems and is distributed under a proprietary license unacceptable to some users. During each major release of Adobe (Acrobat) Reader, the installer package get significantly larger to support extra features, but users are left without means to selectively install components.