Advertising technology ruined the web – and PDF files are supposed to save it • The Register

In January, an online publisher launched a website called Lab 6, which makes its content available as a PDF to protest the state of the modern web, and it caused quite a stir.

Putting PDFs on the web is nothing new, but doing so as a protest against web technology is tantamount to taking a stand in the tabs-spaces debate – PDFs have long been a polarizing topic. Since then, two more editions of Lab 6 have been released, causing disagreement among other web developers about the wisdom of this approach.

The author who asked to be identified simply as “James” in an email exchange with simply The registry, justified use of the PDF format as an attempt to defend against modern web technology.

“PDF has many shortcomings,” he wrote in its first edition. “But in its cold, unchangeable rigidity, it contrasts with the mercenary, dynamic garbage web.”

His contribution cites the toxic effects of advertising on the web and complains about how search engine optimization can generate “megabytes of advertising, distractions, upsells, misdirections, invitations to subscribe to the newsletter, cookie warnings, [and] GDPR warnings. “

It railed against the changeability of web pages that are updated without notice in order to get search engine attention. It laments the tracking and monitoring scripts littering websites. And it condemns the conquest of the web standards community by browser manufacturers.

In short, James opposes the development of the web from a document-centric platform to an application-centric system. His solution is to publish files as PDF / A, “which forbids interactive content (normal PDFs can contain JavaScript!) And make sure your PDFs are absolutely self-contained, even embed the fonts.”

“Ignorance and stupidity”

Maximiliano Firtman, a mobile and web developer and writer, fired the cri de coeur as noise. “PDF is not a format that is suitable for sharing in different formats and on different devices,” he said The registry. “It’s a format that was designed for printing. So it’s like driving a boat across a street.”

“There are much better ways starting with HTML without external resources, epub, [or] Markdown, “he said.” PDF is not responding, it is slow, it cannot be translated, it is unsafe, it is not accessible, [and] It may have embedded JavaScript, proving that it can be just as malicious as any other web page. It’s just ignorance and stupidity. “

In an email to The registry, James explained that Lab 6 is a personal project. “My job is in an industry that has nothing to do with web technology,” he said. “My interest in the web is purely non-commercial and comes from the Geocities pages I created as a kid in the 1990s. Lab 6 is more than a shilling for Adobe (there is a hidden forensics exercise on capturing the flag in the Longitudinal section) in it for example). “

He said he was surprised that his website caught social media attention, noting that his most recent post is a hybrid PDF and Gemini file “that could combat much of the hatred that PDFs generate”.

James said there wasn’t a single moment when he felt the web technology was off the rails. It’s not all bad, he said, but cited four specific concerns.

First of all, he opposes the abandonment of HTML as a finished specification.

“HTML right now is practically exactly what browser manufacturers claim, written down in some sort of standard, but with no end in sight,” he said. “It will never be finished, so the bugs will never be fixed, and the complexity has grown so immensely that no one other than the established browser manufacturers can implement the web realistically at all.”

Second, he posed problems with the way independent bloggers were switching to certain platforms rather than running their own services. He said he could understand this as a reaction to internet hostility – who wants to run their own infrastructure when it’s under constant attack? – but he said the cost is the death of format experimentation as content is squeezed into standard templates and distributed through a handful of aggregators.

Third, he lamented the monetization of everything. “It’s impossible now to search for recipes online and find a real recipe without wading through insane amounts of advertising and SEO chatter,” he explained. “The kind of recipes you find on page one of the search results only seem to exist to attract eyeballs, not because someone really loved a recipe and wanted to share it.”

And fourth, he condemned the web’s transformation from a document-centric to an application-centric model.

“The web is now an environment for hosting applications,” he said. “You can still write a document in very plain HTML, but there is no demarcation between static documents and web applications. Even techies who pride themselves on writing efficient, lightweight markup can’t usually resist a comment-feedback form on the page or to hide some tracking JavaScript in the background. “

James is not a fan of PDFs. They are ugly and inelegant, he explained. But he sees it as a way to mitigate the damage to the modern web ecosystem, which is accessible to non-technicians through popular tools like Microsoft Word.

When asked whether the inability to modify PDFs through client-side intervention – something normally available to browser users when viewing HTML documents – was a loss, he disagreed.

“The fact that PDFs cannot be easily edited by users is a feature, not a loss,” he replied. “It’s a terrible format for distributing data, but so is HTML (if you want to distribute data, it’s better to append it as a separate tab-delimited values ​​file than relying on users to parse it from an HTML table ). “

“I don’t see PDFs replacing HTML in any way, but I see them as a way to recreate the concept of the document,” he said. “A good result here would be for HTML to become the app platform of the web and PDF, Gemini and others to emerge as the document platform for the web.”

“I would like more format experiments, more diversity of thought and approach … a heterogeneous pluralistic network in which people are still trying new things and challenging centralization and building simpler, more sustainable, slower communities that give up similar things and subscribe to a culture.” ®


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