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Last modified: 02 September 2017

PDFAttacher

In my blog post about Hybrid PDFs I showed how editable documents could be stored inside a PDF. And in my blog post about PDF for Planners I showed how a similar technique could unify data and documents in my workflow for A Clearer Plan.

Here, I introduce PDFAttacher, the software that makes this possible. It is open source on GitHub and you can try it now by clicking the button below.

Attaching files to PDFs.

PDFAttacher attaches files to PDFs. Drag a PDF onto the top section and see any attached files below. Drop files on the attachment section and they will be embedded in the PDF.

Extracting and removing files from PDFs.

Click any attached file to either extract and save it, or to delete it.

Working with the PDF standard.

Unlike my earlier investigations into Hybrid PDFs, the attachment method that I'm using here is widely supported. A PDF with files embedded using PDFAttacher and opened in Adobe Reader will show those attachments. Adobe Reader can extract and save them too. Adding or deleting attachments is available in Acrobat Pro too if you have it.

Some history, and the bigger picture

In the late 80s and early 90s, personal computing made documents much easier to create and reproduce. This made us look at documents differently.

A physical document on paper always looks the same. That seems so obvious that it was until recently a trivial statement.

But the new digital documents looked different when viewed on different computer systems. In some cases this was by design, but often it was not. Many digital documents were layed out for printing in Word processors but the strict link between content and layout had been lost. They looked and printed differently on different computers. In many fields reliant on the reliabile reproduction of documents this was a critical flaw.

By combining and embedding layout, content, graphics, and fonts into one document, the PDF format bridged that gap into one portable document format. A PDF looks and prints the same wherever and whenever it is viewed.

 

Today there are new divides in documents. Documents increasingly refer to data. Charts, diagrams, and arguments are based on data. And that data is open, available to the public, and constantly changing and being updated.

Many of these documents serve processes that are, and will remain, powered by printable documents. The legal process — planning, government, courts, and more... — work with documents that must reproduce and print faithfully withou fail.

These documents also need to be archived and remain readable and exactly reproducible long into the future — long after the data sources that powered the charts, diagrams and argument in the document have stopped being maintained or have been update beyond recognition.

We think that PDFs can help here. The original vision of PDF was to unite layout and content in a reproducible, archivable, portable document format. But the format is also capable of uniting documents and data. Simple tools like PDF Attacher can support this ambition.

 

One last thing.

Finally, there are many more types of documents than I've mentioned here. Exact reproducibility of layout often does not matter — many documents will never be printed or have their contents referred to by page, or colour, or font.

That is brilliant. There are formats far better than PDF for representing and storing these documents. One of the most interesting parts of my work with Adobe is listening to the passion of people who want PDFs to die, and listening to the passion of those who want PDFs to keep getting better. Both are right.

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