Should PDFs be next?

Everyone has experienced this: you're happily browsing a site, click on a link to get more information about something and then... TADA! You're downloading a PDF! Or, depending on your browser's settings, you could either have the PDF open in the very same window/tab, or get a new window/tab open with the PDF in them, or even more funnily, you get a new window/tab and the browser prompting you to select a download location for the PDF.

It's an awful mess.

Some websites add a "[PDF]" text close to the link, to point out it's not a normal link. Fair enough. But most of the data they include in a PDF should and can be web accessible. It's just tables of data and facts, after all!

Why do these websites tease users first and then punish them with a PDF when they want to get to the data?

Transport companies are exceptionally guilty of this. I wonder if it's due to laziness, incompetence or simply a consequence of their internal approval processes not being able to verify and give the seal of approval to anything else once they're done with the PDFs.

Some examples

Transport For London


They used to offer a .GIF version of the tube map. It's not there any more; now you have to resign yourself with a PDF, or a ridiculously small Flash widget-ish "Interactive map" that won't fill even 25% of the width of my screen and is as interactive as a push button.

Southern trains

There's no way of getting an HTML timetable. You must download a PDF, or maybe if you register and create one of those custom timetables you get an HTML. But honestly, that's even more of a hassle than the PDF only.


Green line

Again, PDF is the only option if you want to consult the timetables.

Green line

And the list goes on and on and on...

PDFs are a barrier

Instead of being useful and informative, they're just forcing me to go through a format and layout that haven't been designed for web: these documents are meant to be printed. And their pages flipped physically, and sometimes you're expected to hold the index page with one hand while browsing through the required page(s) with the other hand.

Sometimes you even have to rotate the PDF in order to properly read it. Easy to do if you're holding a physical leaflet in your hands, not so with some PDF readers... and less tech-savvy people don't even know they can rotate the PDFs: they turn their heads in a very uncomfortable way instead.

Also, did they think of people using alternative devices such as a phone or a console for accessing the website? Yes, there are PDF readers for some of those phones, but for a console? And why should we abandon the context we are in (the browser, or the couch, in the case of the console) and climb the PDF barrier in order to finally access the data we are so desperately looking for?

Oh, and did I mention how huge and heavy PDFs are in comparison with a simple web page because they are meant to be printed and all the fonts and shapes are embedded? It's even more outrageous when you just need to access a single page from the full document.

It doesn't matter that much when you're using a computer and a proper DSL connection, but it definitely matters when you're on the go and using an unreliable, slow 3G connection.

The irony

PDF stands for Portable Document Format.

But is there anything more portable than HTML? (apart from plain text). It's lightweight to process, can be accessed even in low-profile phones like my old trustful v630i, and you don't need to install any plug-in to read its contents.



PDFs should be next.

Their gratuitous use should be condemned and exterminated, just as the irresponsible use of Flash is thankfully diminishing (although mainly because His Jobness decided he didn't like Flash and all that).

We should be able to access all the contents a website has to offer, by simply using a browser. That simple.

Of course, this requires a mentality change, where the content in the website is adapted to the web format and conventions, instead of simply placing a series of files for download in the website and calling it a day.

Maybe that's what Web 3.0 will really bring...