Everyday Design Icons

The Inside Story of How the Lowly PDF Played the Longest Game in Tech

How has the low-fi 30-year-old innovation reigned for so long?

Rob Walker
Published in
7 min readJan 14, 2021


When is the last time you downloaded, opened, printed, or created a good old-fashioned PDF? Probably pretty recently. By one estimate, there are at least 2.5 trillion PDFs in existence today.

But when is the last time you actually thought about PDFs? The tempo of digital culture is set by fast-paced, head-snapping novelty. So it’s probably been a while — or more likely, never — since you stopped to think where the ubiquitous PDF came from. The Portable Document Format that essentially strives to replicate paper in digital form has been around since the early pre-Web 1990s. Thoroughly lacking in glamor or sizzle, the PDF has not only persisted for decades, but prevailed. Even stalwarts like Microsoft Word or PowerPoint get challenged by rival offerings from Google or Apple. But no PDF-killer has emerged. In fact, PDF inventor Adobe reports that in its 2020 fiscal year alone, about 303 billion PDFs were opened using its Document Cloud service — a 17% annual increase during a year in which the tech conversation was dominated by things like videoconferencing, autonomous vehicles, and facial recognition technology.

Clearly, we take the PDF’s indestructibility for granted. The PDF is a digital equivalent to a paper clip or a ballpoint pen — an everyday tool so familiar it seems to have come out of nowhere, yet it’s hard to imagine its absence. But none of these objects came out of nowhere, of course: They were all designed, engineered, created, refined. In the case of the PDF, what was crucial to its long-term success was the decision by the business that invented it to essentially give its creation away.

The individual most closely identified with the invention of the PDF is John Warnock, who co-founded Adobe in 1982 with Charles Geschke. The two left Xerox PARC to build a business — originating in Warnock’s garage, of course — around a technology called PostScript, basically a language for making computer documents easily printable.

While the company also went on to develop several iconic products — Illustrator and Photoshop are famous examples —…