PDF vs. HTML

Change This has set off an interesting debate about the pros and cons of publishing in PDF vs HTML.

Seth Godin, mastermind behind Change This, set off this debate with this post.

I must admit that my preference is for HTML. It’s searchable, it contains links, it’s fast, you don’t need a plug-in. HTML is the least common denominator that everyone can agree on.

But PDFs have a few things going for them that seeems to be missing from this debate. I don’t think its really about PDF vs. HTML. It’s when is HTML best and when is PDF best?

In late 1992, I met a guy named Isaak Karaev who was planning to change the way Wall Street Research was distributed. He showed me Adobe Acrobat and laid out his plan to get the Wall Street banks to publish their research in PDF and distribute it electronically via a system Isaak was building. I was blown away. The idea seemed so powerful and the technology seemed so revolutionary. I invested in Isaak’s idea which became Multex which became a publicly traded company in 1999 and was sold last year to Reuters for $250 million.

Isaak did change the way research was distributed and in the process he built the first commercial application of PDFs. What’s most interesting about this is that Wall Street Research is still published in PDFs. HTML-based research is not that common. And why is that given that we all seem to think that HTML is better than PDF?

Well, for one PDF gives the banks and their analysts much better control over the look and feel of their research. They want to report to look on the screen the way it looks on paper. Another reason is that PDF does a much better job of rendering the complex excel models and tables that these reports contain. A third reason is that its easier to save and email a PDF to your colleague than it is a HTML page.

My point? PDF has a role in online publishing. It’s not the format of choice form most content, but for certain kinds of content, its is a better solution. Wall Street research is one good example.

For Change This manifestos? I think they should publish them both ways and see what people prefer. How’s that for a suggestion?