At Wharton, PDFs Stand the Test of Time

Computer technology has advanced dramatically since 1993, when the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania put then-new Adobe Systems Inc.'s Acrobat software and the Portable Document Format (PDF) to work. The school first used the technology to disseminate information to students and faculty over local-area networks. It was an innovative application at the time, but over the years, Wharton not only has continued to use PDFs, it also has greatly expanded their role across campus and beyond.
"We routinely distribute all school publications—including course catalogs, promotional brochures, and periodicals—as well as course materials and faculty research papers in Adobe PDF over the Web and other electronic media," says Kendall Whitehouse, Wharton's director of advanced technology development. "What began as a ‘one-to-many' distribution model has become a ‘many-to-many' way for everyone associated with Wharton to share information."
The PDF is a popular delivery format for reasons that have been true since its inception: Anyone can open, view, and print documents that look just like the originals, regardless of their visual complexity or the application used to create them. But according to Whitehouse, efficiency is merely the beginning of the technology's benefit to Wharton.
"Our Adobe PDF files have become increasingly valuable over time," Whitehouse says. "Without any additional effort, we've created a historical document archive that has outlived original artwork files and printed copies. With what other document format would that be true? Most application files are incompatible from version to version. But Adobe PDF files created in Acrobat 1.0 in 1993 look just as good in Acrobat 5.0 today."
As a result, departments and individuals throughout Wharton have been able to preserve whatever documents they need—including hundreds of back issues of Wharton's State of the School annual reports, alumni magazines, and other publications—in a way that makes them easy to use. Through Wharton's dozens of internal and external Web sites, students, faculty, researchers, administrators, alumni, prospects, and people worldwide have instant access to relevant information.
PDF files download quickly. They retain the look the authors intended and are comfortable to view on screen because they contain navigational elements such as thumbnail previews, bookmarks, links, and article threads that help readers scan multicolumn and multipage layouts. Viewers can then print pages true to the document's appearance. "Most formats are optimized for either screen or print," Whitehouse says, "but Adobe PDF files render beautifully on monitors and on paper."
Moreover, Adobe PDF files maintain their fidelity across platforms, from desktop and laptop computers to handheld devices, which weren't even invented when Wharton began using Acrobat. Says Whitehouse, "The Adobe PDF architecture is forward- and backward-compatible. We keep finding new uses for Adobe PDF as computer technology changes around it."
Wharton faculty members, for example, now regularly use Acrobat software to generate course materials as press-ready PDF files, which they submit electronically to Xerox Corp. DocuTech print-on-demand systems in the school's off-campus reprographics center. To ensure that all students can create as well as view and print PDF files, Wharton installed Acrobat 5.0 software on all of the PCs in its computer labs campus-wide. Whitehouse predicts that soon students will submit papers and other assignments as PDF files and that instructors will use the software's commenting tools to add grades, comments, and corrections electronically.
"Our Acrobat investment all those years ago keeps paying off," Whitehouse says. "The technology enables us to share high-quality documents on any media—paper, CDs, floppy disks, Web servers, e-mail, handheld devices, you name it. That gives us tremendous flexibility in how we work and richness in what we offer. It's still hard to believe that we can do so much with just one file format."

For more information, contact Kendall Whitehouse at whitehouse@wharton.upenn.edu.

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