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It’s Time To Cut Adobe Reader Some Slack

11 Dec 2008 | | 3 Comments

Adobe ReaderIt’s a common refrain on forums and blogs: “Adobe Reader is bloatware”. Usually followed by a recommendation to use Foxit Reader on Windows or Linux and the built-in Preview feature on Mac OSX. Some of the criticism is fair; but most of it is not.

There’s no denying that the installer for Adobe Reader, and its footprint, is bigger than its competitors. It’s a lot bigger in some cases. But there are reasons for this: reasons that some people care about and others don’t. As Duff Johnson points out in a recent post, one of the primary reasons for its size is that people expect Adobe Reader to open all PDFs, no matter how poorly they were created:

Contrarian geeks aside, any serious user of PDFs will need Adobe Reader sooner rather than later. Without a concept of “well-formed and valid” PDF, developers naturally resorted to Adobe Reader as the “standard” for the PDFs their applications create.  If Reader could open, display and print their PDF, they were good-to-go.

The result, of course, is that the world is now an anarchy of junk PDFs that conform only to what 3rd party developers observed in their tests with Adobe Reader.  Reader itself has become the de facto standard for PDF simply because Adobe works very hard to make sure that Reader will open almost any PDF, no matter how poorly constructed.

In short, Adobe Reader is bigger because it works harder to accurately display all PDFs.

To put this in some perspective, some modern web browsers let you choose between viewing web pages in two different modes — quirks mode and standards mode. If you choose  quirks mode then the web browser will not comply 100% with web standards, instead it simply tries to render the website as it was originally designed back in 90’s. If you choose standards mode then the web browser renders the website strictly according to web standards, with no attention paid to backwards compatibility or whether it breaks the site.

On the other hand, Adobe Reader does not include a standards mode for rendering PDFs; instead, it’s always in quirks mode. Meaning that it will always try to display PDFs accurately, no matter how poorly they may be produced.

This is one the key issues that people don’t take into account when criticising the size of Adobe Reader. Another is that Adobe Reader must support every nook and cranny of the PDF specification, while some of the smaller PDF viewers neglect to support certain features — like JavaScript or multimedia, for example.

Perhaps you’re wondering why Adobe doesn’t simply not support incorrectly created PDFs. Well, experience tells me that the reason for this is that people tend to accuse whatever application they were using at the time of an error as being the source of the problem. So if you open a PDF and see that all of the text is garbled, then you tend to blame the PDF viewer, not the PDF creator. When in fact, most of the time, it should be the other way around. The end result is that if Adobe Reader doesn’t support poorly formed PDFs, then people think that it’s a buggy program.

As far as whether small PDF viewers are quicker to load PDFs than Adobe Reader is, it’s hard to get a definitive answer, since no two PDFs are the same. Duff Johnson did some tests to see if the Preview feature in Mac OSX was quicker to load PDFs than Adobe Reader and found that Adobe Reader was in fact quicker to load the two PDFs he tested, but I’m sure someone else could find two other PDFs that would reverse the result.

Unfortunately, these days it seems like most of the people who criticise Adobe Reader haven’t tried any of the recent versions. Perhaps they had a bad experience with version 5 or 6 or perhaps they’re happy with their own PDF reader and just want to make it more popular. Whatever the case, their comments don’t carry as much weight as they use to.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for competition — I use Adobe Reader on my laptop and Foxit Reader on my Eee PC. But the constant bagging of Adobe Reader is pretty tiresome and does not take into account any of its benefits.

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  • Rowan Hanna (author) said:

    This recent blog post from PCWorld.com is exactly the sort of generic anti-Adobe Reader stuff I’m talking about.

    There’s some areas in which Foxit Reader has the edge over Adobe Reader (size is the main one), but it’s definitely not every area. It’d be nice if some of these bloggers could dig a little deeper instead of just regurgitating the same old lines.

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