Is PDF File Repair Helpful, or Just Dangerous?

When introduced two decades ago, PDF was a game changer. As the first true system-agnostic file type, PDF files could be shared, manipulated, and printed – and look the same on every device. Back then, Adobe Acrobat was the only PDF creator and viewer, and they produced PDF files to meet their own standards. Now though, PDF is an open format that can be produced by anyone.

Rise of PDF, Rise of Corruption

At last count, there were over 3,000 creators of PDF, and there are billions of PDF files located on the web (just put “PDF” in front of any Google search. Even kittens). The standards for creating a PDF are published and controlled by the ISO – the Internal Organization for Standardization. However, not every PDF creator adheres to those standards. So many PDF files wind up corrupted.

Corruption Equals Gooblydegook

On the outside, corrupt PDF files often look the same as their respectably built counterparts. It’s only if you were to x-ray corrupt files, or ask a developer to take a closer look at the back end, that you’d see their damage – a lot of missing information, scrambled code or at its worst, a virus.

Initially, corrupted files wouldn’t open in any PDF viewer.

File Repair isn’t Flawless, and Presents a Moral Issue

Eager to popularize PDF as a file format, Adobe decided to create a fix they called “File Repair.” On the outside, File Repair looked great: you could add .pdf to any file, and Acrobat would figure out how to open it. In fact, Acrobat wouldn’t even tell you the file was corrupt. Just click and woosh! A PDF.

There’s an extreme downside to File Repair, though. It opens any file. Even those files with missing information. And those files with scrambled code. And those files with viruses.

It’s as if a contractor were to build a home that did not have a solid structure and plumbing that did not meet federal standards, but he made the exterior look fantastic with trim and lovely window panes – and then a Realtor ignored the issues and sold the house.

Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Here’s the big issue: If one PDF viewer won’t open a file, but Acrobat will, a potential customer will think the first PDF viewer is inferior – when really that viewer is trying to protect the customer from issues that stem from a corrupt PDF.

So long as creators of PDF are not being held accountable to create PDF files correctly and there remains no independent validation of these files, Adobe’s File Repair inadvertently gives every company that makes a PDF viewer, like Nitro, a moral dilemma: do we follow suit, or do we choose to only open PDF files that were made following ISO standards?

To create our own version of File Repair offers positive reinforcement to developers who create malformed PDF files. But to not do so might push us out of the global market.

For now, we choose the former, and join the conversation in order to educate users about PDF standards.