PDF/A-3 Enables ANY Format to be Embedded in PDF

PDF/A-3 adds a single and highly significant feature to its predecessor PDF/A-2 (ISO 19005-2)—it enables you to embed any other format within a PDF/A file – a single file or multiple files, such as Excel, Word, HTML, CAD or XML files, for the first time.

This is important because it means that PDF/A-3 files can be used as a wrapper and file system for digital objects and still viewable via a PDF reader such as Foxit PDF Reader (at least, theoretically, as you’ll read momentarily).

Organizing Digital Archives

The good news is, this extends the uses for PDF/A. You can essentially use it as a way of organizing digital archives. The not-so-good news is, it also creates the potential for new types of dependencies, which can foil the self-contained nature of the original specification—meaning, someone somewhere who opens your file down the road may not be able to view elements of your PDF file using something as easily available as a PDF reader.

The PDF purists say that this adjustment goes against the whole notion behind the PDF/A standard—meaning, that PDF files be virtually guaranteed readable by basic PDF readers. Pragmatists in companies from various segments, such as the pharmaceutical industry or the banking and financial sector, however, applaud the concept of being able to embed other formats in PDF files, because they have real-world needs to store original file formats alongside their PDF/A file counterparts.

Three PDF/A formats

To make matters further complex but cover content bases, the PDF/A-3 standard also includes three different grades of what is considered conforming to this standard:

• PDF/A-3a covers accessibility
• PDF/A-3b is about visual integrity, i.e. ensuring that the document displays consistently
• PDF/A-3u covers searchable text and copying Unicode text for PDF documents that are created digitally and those that are created by scanning using optical character recognition (OCR).

The standard only ensures the representation of PDF/A documents viewed via a compliant PDF reader. Presentation of non-compliant embedded documents is handled via a separate action using the tools that support those other document formats.

Which PDF/A format is the right one?

Only use PDF/A-3 if you plan to embed documents that don’t comply with the PDF/A standard. In other words, if you need to embed an Excel spreadsheet or HTML file in its original form, PDF/A-3 is for you.

If everything that’s going into your PDF document is a PDF format, PDF/A-2 is the right choice.

And of course, if you don’t need all this extra functionality and just want to preserve your PDF document for long-term archiving, PDF/A-1 is the right choice.

Want to learn more? See what’s happening at CeBIT

This year at CeBIT, the world’s largest and most international computer expo held annually in Germany, PDF Association members will take up the task of covering practical uses for PDF/A-3.

They plan to explore the ZUGFeRD data model, which specifies PDF/A-3 as the carrier format for exchanging digital invoices. Association members will show how businesses can create and work with ZUGFeRD-compliant invoices.

Email archiving is another practical use for PDF/A-3, as this third version of the standard can combine both archivable emails and attachments with their original source files to create a single PDF/A document. PDF Association members will also show the first examples of this principle in practice.

Many new potential applications have begun to appear over the past year as a result of the release of PDF/A-3, including e-invoicing, email archiving, storing birth certificates and more.

CeBIT is set for March 10-14, 2014. For more details, check the Website for more details on PDF/A-3 presentations, articles and research.

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