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Mars Opens PDF to XML Connections
Update ready for Windows Vista
William Pollard (will789)     Print Article 
Published 2007-07-19 06:09 (KST)   
Adobe have released a second beta version of Mars, an XML version of the PDF format used in Acrobat. The potential of XML is to improve links with data and to allow open source software to connect with open documents. The new version of Mars works with Acrobat 8.1, suitable for the Vista version of Windows. In future, there could be a choice of XML document formats. Vista already features XPS, also claimed to be an open format.

This report will include some speculation and opinion. There is currently not much information about Mars and very little comment on the potential consequences. Adobe has publicized software around Flash so information on this could be found through other sources. There will probably be other stories later in the year that give details on developments or show where things have turned out differently to the suggestions in this story.

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The PDF (Portable Document Format) file was designed as a continuation of Postscript, a way to describe pages for printing. The original code dates from the early 1980s. There are problems in relating this to modern concerns for open standards such as XML (Extensible Markup Language). XML is a format for data and the way it is displayed. According to Wikipedia, "Its primary purpose is to facilitate the sharing of data across different information systems, particularly via the Internet."

The Mars format is a zip file containing information about each page in XML format, and each page as an SVG file. The Scalable Vector Graphic file is also a Web standard, based on XML, and can be static or animated. Currently there is no support for animated SVG in Mars.

A presentation by Jim King at the recent PDF University in Miami explained some background on PDF and the direction of both Mars and Apollo (a project around Flash). It is available for download (about 5 megabytes) on the Acrobat Users Web site. King explains that you should have a look at Mars "if you are all about open source and standards."

In theory, PDF has always been an open standard in that a specification was public. Adobe has not been the only source of software relating to PDF. In January, Adobe announced their intention to release the PDF specification through AIIM to ISO as an international standard. There are already standards for pre-press (PDF/X) and for archiving (PDF/A) that restrict the range of options that can be used for specific purposes.

It was observed by the Gilbane Group that several bloggers contended, "This represents another attack by Adobe on Microsoft and its recently-released XPS format." The XPS or XML Paper Specification is part of the Vista release of Windows. It was developed by Global Graphics who also supply software for commercial printing, including support for PDF and Postscript. See below for more on standards and open documents.

There is already some work on open source ways to create PDF from XML, including software on Web servers. The Adobe approach is to describe LiveCycle server products as something separated from Acrobat on the desktop. LiveCycle has some impressive features but is regarded by many as expensive. It is only promoted to large organizations.

The Apache XML Graphics Project aims to develop a Formatting Objects Processor (FOP) with PDF as the primary output target. Apache also support an open source Web server that is widely used. The FOP has reached version 0.93, an advance from the previous 0.20.5. These numbers are below 1, so indicate that a better version is yet to come. The current version is working, as shown by the example PDF files on the site. So the version numbering may be cautious.

Jeremias Marki works with the Apache Project and has compared Mars with XPS on his blog: "Without going into much detail with either standard, I prefer the Adobe approach because Mars is based on the standards SVG, PNG and JPEG. They've added only the stuff needed to make a round-trip from and to PDF."

In an e-mail he explained that it would be possible to write a version of the Apache FOP that produced the Mars format. My guess is that the new format would be easier to work with from an XML source.

If you are finding some of the terms hard to follow there is explanation on Wikipedia, starting for example with XSL Transformations. The essential point is that it is possible to both store and publish documents using open standards.

The Open Document Format is supported by Open Office and other software. It is based on XML. It can already save to PDF but again my guess is that this would also work with Mars. Scribus is open source software for desktop page design. Again, it already creates PDF to pre-press standards. XML standards could make this easier over time.

It was recently announced that Ecma have set up a technical committee to develop a standard around XML. The chair is Martin Bailey, chief technology officer of Global Graphics. He told What They Think, "We're taking a specification that's very new but already has a large potential user base, and feeding that into an open standards process. That's an unusual opportunity to gain the best of both worlds: the speed of development by a single vendor, combined with the mandate to address the broad base of user requirements that a standards body brings."

This may not last as a situation. It is hard to imagine a standard with only one vendor.

There is opposition to Microsoft claims on open standards. Andy Updegrove points out that the terms of reference of the new committee include looking at the Microsoft standard for "Open Office" XML -- OOXML, so far only used in Microsoft Office. He points out that Microsoft earlier refused to join the OASIS committee that developed the original open document format.

He claims, "If OOXML, and now Microsoft XML Paper Specification, each sail through Ecma and are then adopted by ISO/IEC JTC1, then I think that we might as well declare 'game over' for open standards."

No matter how strong the case is for open documents, one advantage of the activity around XPS is that Adobe can only be encouraged to move further with Mars and their own support for XML. In some ways, it is strange that an XML approach to PDF was not announced earlier. There has been discussion about the potential advantages for a number of years. The Seybold conference held in Amsterdam in 2004 was located alongside another conference on XML. Seybold promotion explained, "Why this emphasis on XML? Because tools are starting to come of age that leverage XML for automating the job ticketing, forms submission, automated document creation and content management processes."

Web Theatre -- Adobe Live London.
©2007 William Pollard
At Adobe Live in London, most of the promotion for developers concentrated on Apollo, software around Flash. It is widely assumed that Adobe sees Microsoft as competing in the area of Web design though products such as Silverlight for "rich interactive applications." My own guess is that actually the chances of designers deserting their Macs to design in Windows are quite low and that Microsoft claims to be "cross-platform" will take a while to establish. By contrast, the print industry is probably prepared to listen to a case on standards from Global Graphics and many enterprises are still interested in flat pieces of paper.

More information about Mars will become available later this year. Matthew Hardy from Adobe will present a paper at Document Engineering in August, following a session on XML documents.

At a conference on Internationalization in October, Thomas Merz is expected to raise issues about PDF and Unicode, the standard for international characters. On the Web site it is suggested that extracting text from currently existing PDF is "significantly harder" than using Unicode with PDF creation. The issues are significant for meeting standards for access and archiving. In another session, Matthew Hardy and Philip Levy from Adobe will talk about Mars. They explain: "PDF uses string representations in several ways: first as text content on pages, second as text in data structures that are used to describe the document structure, and third as names of objects such as fonts and images. Translating these strings into Unicode was one of the big challenges we faced in defining the Mars format."

It could be that the discussion during the conference will identify potential benefits from the new format. Mars is still in beta and the available documentation is intended for a technical audience. However, the potential benefits for anyone interested in documents are significant so this project could justify more attention than there has been so far.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter William Pollard

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