September 22, 2010: Why PDF?
As a preliminary aside, note that these answers aren't "ex cathedra"; they don't represent the closing of all other possibilities unto the end of days. Technology constantly evolves, and data formats and communication techniques are a moving target. (I still chuckle when I read old GURPS books that proudly proclaim how you can contact our bulletin board with a 300-baud modem.) Still, they're our best guesses for how things are, and will likely be for a while.
So why do we use PDF? Because, simply, it works. It's not an ideal format in all cases, but it serves a large enough audience well enough that there are no other serious contenders. First, it's an excellent format for printing -- which many of our customers do. It's also quite readable on computer screens, especially large ones. For e-book readers that support the PDF format, our documents generally do well. (This may seem obvious, but it's good to point out: Because our PDFs aren't too complex or filled with hideously elaborate backgrounds, the tiny processors on PDF-capable e-book readers can handle most of our supplements just fine.)
"But why," you might ask, "can't you release the PDF and also release a version of the book formatted in another way (a horizontal screen-friendly PDF, an electronic-book format, or the like)?" Simply put, cost. For obvious reasons, the need to lay out a book twice would result in twice as much layout work -- which, in turn, would increase the final cost of the PDF by a lot. We put a great deal of care into the layout of our supplements, and we wouldn't be content to do a slapdash conversion to an alternate format.
In addition, almost all of our supplements lose functionality if we tried to release them in another format; most e-book formats rely on being able to reflow dynamically, which would break page references and indexes. (Sure, this isn't a huge problem within one book, but how do you handle a reference to another book, like "See Acid on p. 428 of the GURPS Basic Set"? It's not insurmountable, but it's still annoying.) Dynamic reflowing also seldom works well for tables, sidebars, and artwork.
Still, there's another reason. The ability to read and consume PDFs is only getting better. I purchased a computer screen several years ago that could rotate 90 degrees, to view full pages in a portrait mode. Nowadays, that same monitor would cost a third of what I paid -- although it's largely moot, because computer resolution and screen size has improved so radically. Today, it's easier and cheaper to buy a widescreen monitor and read two pages side by side, like a real book! Similarly, I often read our PDFs on the iPad, and it's a delight. The technology to read PDFs is only going to get better as the years go by.
In a lot of ways, I envision the PDF filetype -- at least for RPGs and other table-heavy layout-dependent material -- to be a lot like the MP3 format. Just over 10 years ago, the MP3 was solely the domain of big, clunky computers. A few years later, it was the format for expensive dedicated units. Today, devices that support MP3s are everywhere; I received one that was literally free a couple of years ago (it was built into a gift card at no additional cost). A high-quality MP3 from 1996 still plays fine today, and it'll play fine for decades to come on thousands of devices; the same can't be said for proprietary or unusual audio formats that have come and gone in the intervening years. Similarly, PDFs have proven to be a resilient format, and I can still use a dozen different programs to read PDF files from a decade ago; I suspect I'll be able to have them projected directly into my eyeballs with the high-tech Retina-Etch Display System to be built into the sixth-generation iPad.
Or, if I want, I'll still be able to print them, too . . . and they'll look great.
-- Steven Marsh
Randy's Road Trip Update
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