Paper is dead - has PDF followed suit?

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Note: Tony will not address comments made to this editorial. Please refer to his blog entry for more information.

When I was 14, I bought my first computer magazine. Yes, I was a late starter! What I found amazing was that, after buying my first issue, I understood pretty none of what I had read. There were terms like CPU, RAM, protected mode, driver... I had simply no idea. I was partially excused: we are talking almost 20 years ago, and back then many of those terms weren't as popular as they are now.

Six months (and six issues) later, I realised that I was finally able to read that first magazine cover to cover and actually understand (nearly) everything. I finally had the vocabulary and the information to "get it"—and it felt great!

A little while later, I started advising all of my friends that they should buy and read magazines about their interests, if they were serious about them (a lot of them, as it turned out, were!). When they asked me why, I would answer: because you need the vocabulary, you need to know what's going on in your field.

Magazines were really important. The world's magazine market was booming, and publishers were undoubtedly happy.

Then, the internet came.

The shift was significant. Everybody knew it, but nobody was able to predict where it would all end up. Would contents become a per-pay privilege even on the internet? Would individuals start competing against multimillionaire companies and eventually kill them?

The war between bloggers and established journalism is under everybody's eyes. What is clear, is that paper magazines—once the cultural centre and virtual community of many topics—have become more and more irrelevant.

The paper magazine market has been slowing down significantly. People are not buying magazines as much—they are browsing the web. People are not paying for ad-infested magazines—they are reading online articles and occasionally clicking on ads.

At the beginning of the revolution, the PDF format was considered the bridge between the paper and the online world. Adobe did something very smart when they released the full PDF specifications (and then, later on, did something very stupid when they tried to keep for themselves the "enhancements", but that's another story). With PDFs, you could publish something electronically, and be sure that it would look exactly the same as it would look on paper. Many people believed that most of the paper magazines would simply turn into PDF ones, sold on the net. That step obviously (luckily?) didn't happen. At the end of the revolution, very few PDF magazines actually existed.

Why? Well, the world took an entirely different direction, in terms of contents and revenue—a direction that steered away from PDFs. Today:

  • Most income with online information comes from online banners. Although it is possible to publish clickable banners in PDF files, it's not straightforward and it's not the "norm".
  • Publishing in HTML format is very easy, and it doesn't require any composition efforts. Forget about Pagemaker, Quark XPress, and so on.
  • Most of the time, it's actually easier to read information from a web site than a PDF file, since PDFs often require horizontal scrolling and are more awkward to read.
  • Web sites end up in a person's bookmark or RSS feeds. PDF files end up in some obscure folder and forgotten about.
  • PDFs are much better in terms of printing. However, not many people seem to be willing to print their PDFs.
  • PDFs tend to be big, monolithic files, whereas web sites are made up of smaller pages. Big monolithic files are every web server's enemy.
  • It's easy to point to a specific web page. It's not straightforward to do so with PDFs—and even if you do, you will have to download the full PDF document to read a specific page
  • Google doesn't index PDF files very well. It's hard to get decent pageranking if your web site based on information stored in PDF files.
  • PDF is fantastic for distributing application forms (for example for banks etc.). However, you can hardly make money by distributing application forms...
  • Did I mention that composition is expensive?

Abobe could have addressed a lot of these problems very easily. For example, they could have offered a more straightforward, standard way of publishing banners in PDF files, allowing even Javascript (and therefore allowing Google banners). They could have offered templates for this, as well as published ways of making sure that there was no need for double scrolling while reading a document. Now, it's too late—and admittedly, even if they had done all of the right things, the web would have probably won anyway.

As you've probably already noticed, we have ourselves given up on releasing Free Software Magazine in PDF format. As far as we are concerned, PDF is gone—at least from our web site. We will probably still allow people to download the PDF files of the old issues. However, now we can focus more on the contents, and less on composition and distribution of big, clumsy files.

The world has changed significantly. Magazines used to be the cultural centre of every possible topic—and they used to sell well. Today, the internet is slowly but surely taking the place of magazines—and taking more and more advertising money away from paper publishing.

Paper—as well as PDF—is now a thing of the past. Web sites are gaining importance—at full throttle. Publishers need to adapt—and need to do it fast.

The alternative, is to painfully become irrelevant and fade away.



Floyd Chrysler's picture

I want a PDF version. I am not going to help you with your request to promote yourself with DIGG nor spend much time at your site until you re-instate a downloadable PDF version that I can read off-line at my leisure. Not everyone has constant access to the internet!

Ruas 0's picture
Submitted by Ruas 0 on

I want also a PDF version, I don't want to read the paper on screen. I like to have paper on my side to read them when I am waiting for appointment or any other waste of time. Thanks

zkyzlayer's picture
Submitted by zkyzlayer on

Please bring back PDF version. I as many readers of this magazine don't have a 24/7 internet conection so the PDF format is ideal for offline reading. I use to read this magazine cover to cover and do so during dead times like say transportation or before going to bed and without a PDF or simmilar version I seriously doubt that I'll be able to read anithing from this great magazine and since in my case "Intertet time" is very expensive it is prohibitive for me to spend it in reading articles on-line even if they are as interesting as the ones published in FSM, so please BRING BACK PDF VERSION !!!! or any other format suitable for offline reading

Marco Marongiu's picture

I used to print FSM and take it home with me because I find it very hard to read from the screen and, moreover, because I can't always take my PC with me. Needless to say, this will heavily cut the time I spend reading FSM articles. Add to this that there is NO printer-friendly version of the articles and you are all set: not only we don't have PDFs any more, but we don't have a way to easily print the articles for take-away...

It's not a change, it's a damage.

Is there anything we, the readers and the contributors of FSM, can do to have PDFs back?


Santanu Chatterjee's picture

Since I don't have internet connectivity on my home
computer, I generally download (i.e. used to download)
the PDF version and take home to read (I never printed
them. I do most of my reading from the computer screen).
But the problem now I am facing is that I will have to
create a folder for each issue and manually download the
printer friendly html version of _each_ article to that
folder and take the folder home.

Not something too great a problem, just a bit more work
on my part. So, I would like to request you to take the
approach taken by LWN. Their _entire_ issue (with _all_
articles) can be opened in a big printer friendly page
which I can download easily at one go.

Thanks for the great magazine, and thanks for making
it freely available.

Santanu Chatterjee

diggstech's picture
Submitted by diggstech on

So the lack of a downloadable pdf is no big deal. Just get PDF Creator from sourceforge and then whenever you want a pdf version of any article just print the "printer friendly" version to a PDF. I do it all the time. Easy and free (as in freedom to have it your way).

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Tony, PDF may be dead in your eyes, but what about those of us who are not able to sit in front of a 'net connected computer in order to read the mag?

I travel by train a lot, and the PDF is important (perhaps essential?) to me, as I can bung it on to a flash drive (or CD) and read the mag while travelling. Additionally, I can archive past copies and refer back to them when needed, or print out anything that I need to.

I'm all for progress, but it would be nice to preserve some element of sanity for those without a live connection to the 'net. Please, I urge you to reconsider your decision and bring back the PDF.

John Marsden

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I won't read much of the magazine anymore. I just don't need more on-line time. I print the PDF and read it cover-to-cover at my leisure - off-line.

Please bring it back


PJE's picture
Submitted by PJE on

I used to print articles to archive/read again. HTML print output is very browser specific, unlike PDF which should be handled the same by all readers.

There are any number of competing websites with similar information to what you provide - especially in the era of google - your advantage was how it was presented.

Your publication has lost 50% of its usefullness to me at one stroke.

I'm not too concerned about the layout of a magazine - rather the content. How about an option to have each article in a PDF format without all the menus etc to allow for archiving and printing.


vasco's picture
Submitted by vasco on

Agreed. Really, the information you provide is elsewhere: forums, blogs... The usefulness of your magazine was that it was... well, a magazine.

Narasimhan's picture

In developing countries like mine(India..)internet..broadband is not every where.I always prefer to download
PDF. Either i can read off line or take print out and read at leisure.I can can read printed work in my bed and go for a sleep in the half-way through..but not with online..
Please revoke PDF option..


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I miss the PDF. I used to take the pdf on my laptop for off-line reading...
Now, I am afraid I will not read most of it.

-- lux

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on


I did like the pdf version, but I understand your reasons for not providing a pdf anymore. But please, at least give us a 'printer-friendly' version of the articles.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I must confess that I've never read a FSM issue cover to cover... but only selected article that I discovered using the full-text indexing capabilities of my Macbook (i.e. Spotlight).

One can argue that Google will do this just as well... But there is a major difference: Google only works when there is an Internet connection and this is not (at all) guaranteed in the small country where I live, Mauritius.

But I understand that you must also get some money...

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Here in Brazil, we don't have constant access to the net, and I need to read the mag offline. Without the PDF issues, it's going to be hard for me to continue reading the magazine as allways.

I'd really appreciate if you go back to publishing PDF.


Constantinescu Nicolaie's picture

Imagine a small digital library that benefited from a digitization program in order to preserve unique works or Archimedes (although I don't now anyone having such...)
One way of sharing via dissemination instruments is to build an institutional repository. There comes the choice of format: ?

So, go on and shot my friends... which one is best known as a norm of maximal ergonomic comfort ? Of course the all mighty ODT and then comes PDF...

PDF is alive healthy and kick'n... Revolution is still yet to come, but untill then... let's make rational choices.

Jim Paradis's picture

My family and job keep me busy. The only time I get time to read your magazine is on the train to and from work. Unfortantly I don't have web access on the train. It was great to be able download you magazines in PDF format and read them on the train. If PDFs are to costly then some other format would be ok as long as it is readable in Linux. Thanks!


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Hi, I have to kill some time traveling from home to work and back.
a print-out then is essential.

It does not have to be a nice magazine layout but some print of the hole magazine whould be nice.

Thanks Henny.

Alejandro 1's picture

You're gonna loose lots of readers with through way, you're denying to people the greatest point of FSM, the portability. I'm not going to print HTML pages and i think i'm not the only one. See you some day if you bring PDF's back.

Victor Tan's picture

For pack-rats like me, keeping versions of FSM around in PDF was great.. just when i am tired of doing real work, i decide to just fire up the PDF version of FSM (issues 1..15). Afterall, years of Adobe has trained me to read PDFs quite efficiently.

Please consider backing the PDF format. tks! Maybe the fancy formatting can be removed..

jochem's picture
Submitted by jochem on

I dont understand your choice to only make it online, and no PDF!
You can stop calling it an magazine, if its only online, then you have got an website...not an magazine!
So reconsider please, advertise in the PDF as much as you like, if its lack of money, or find an good sponser, before you loose your readers! Ask your readers for help...

Good luck, and hopefully an brighter PDF future!

T Shawn Knisely's picture

I have to agree; I prefer the PDF format for many of the same reasons others have stated. I just PAID for a PDF only version of Linux Journal. Like others, I can read at will.

Just my two cents.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

The world is not so "online" as we would like it to be. Your magazine was perfect for offline reading. If you don't publish it in PDF, I'll stop reading it, as many other users.

Nevertheless, thank you very much for the first 15 releases of your magazine!


llista's picture
Submitted by llista on

If you want to make available the magazine only online then you should withdraw the link for donations because the website would be no different from any other pro-open source site that makes money with advertising and traffic, if you make it available via PDF it is understandable you may ask for donations because you can't have any income with website traffic.

Just my thoughts on the changes, the articles are excellent but what made the magazine special was that it was a magazine not an online website.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

What? No PDF? No read nor digg then.

GioGio's picture
Submitted by GioGio on

Please go back to Pdf or other printable format.
It is crazy to think that everyone is connected at everytime in everyplace to the net.
More ever reading off the line (maybe on paper) is still a need (any commuter can say that: on bus, on trai and so on) and sometimes a pleasure.
Please rethink about it.
Bye to next pdf or pdf like issue

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

In a world where web pages are the norm (and for computer-subject publications, it is) a good well-composited publication for printing is a change.

Analogy: When all the stores were brick-and-mortar, Amazon came along with something different. It worked well for them. All the johnny-come-lately's have to play catch-up to Amazon.

By dropping PDF and quality composition, you lose your Ace, your trump card. With them, you will be like most other web-sites discussing free-software. I may or may not want to visit your site. Without the PDF hook, I now will be just as likely to visit other sites.

Having said that, I appreciate the challenges for monetizing a PDF-based product. The revenue may rise, the expenses may drop; I can see that being attractive. But you have also put away your best hook.

I hope your new business works for you. Best of luck.

Saltamontes's picture

After a few time, i retuned to FSM seeking new information, and i'm used to download the FSM's PDFs and keep them for future reading.

If PDF in dont abailable for space reasons, an option might be make abailable *.tex downloads and we convert them to PDF with Latex, TEX, MickTex or equivalent software, or at least, a printable version of the online articles; but not everybody have internet access (no in Mexico).

Im agree about donations, but what i need to make a donation???, i need to have a credit card???, i haven't done it before.

//Sorry if i have mistakes in the writing, im trying to write well, enghish is a little difficult for me
Thanks to ALL!!! ^_^

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I don't think the whole magazine NEEDS to be in PDF format, much as some people might like it that way, but for technical articles, particularly those that spread over more than one page, a one-click download enhances the usefulness of the magazine tremendously. Open Office document, PDF, anything as long as we can get something that prints reasonably without too much hassle.

M.M.'s picture
Submitted by M.M. on

Can you keep a link for download of entire magazine? If you can´t give a PDF version, at least we will have a offline edition.

martonem's picture
Submitted by martonem on

PDF is not dead, or should I say the concept behind it (on-screen and print format consistency) is not...
You have already in the above comments heard some of the reasons:
1) Print for offline reading (can't read off screen for long time)
2) Not always connected to the Internet...etc.

Most of your problems revolved around the fact that it is more difficult from a business and money-making standpoint to use PDF format: banners, page ranking, etc. However, there is more to the Internet then making money (believe it or not). Yes getting forms from the IRS in PDF format may not be sexy but I wouldnt have it any other way. Also, I can't stand printing webpages -- like the ones at your site -- where there are 3-columns and the priting is all screwed up and contains superfluous material.

Also, many desktop search engines, including Google, index PDF files fairly well.

While I'm not touting Adobe format specifically, I sure hope that PDF or something like it is around for a while. And personally, I miss your PDF download magazine. If you do even a small amount of research on marketing in general, and online marketing specifically, you will see it always a wise move to give your "customers" more options in tead of less; especially when it doesnt really cost you much. The more ways you put yourself out there (PDF, podcast, online, traditional media) the more people you attract, and then they WILL go to your website and read and click on banners, etc.

As far as paper being dead in general, I'm not sure that will ever (i.e. our lifetime) be the case, but I have big hopes (and interest) in companies like ePaper. I consider it the Clavinova of paper - it has the same look and feel as the real thing, but all the advantages of electronic media.

Keep up the good work.

Steve's picture
Submitted by Steve on

Besides a reader of FSM, I'm also the publisher of my own PDF magazine (created entirely with FLOSS). I was giving serious consideration to dropping PDF and going to online-only, but the reactions I'm seeing here have made me reconsider.

Steve's picture
Submitted by Steve on

I pasted the wrong address in. I even caught it, and meant to fix it, and didn't.

My address is

Thanks for asking.

oiloil's picture
Submitted by oiloil on

I was curious and also, as a matter of fact, a fan of fair trade coffee!


DwalerXIII's picture

I am in a sutuation like Jim Paradis preveously desribed. I hardly have the time to read the magazine at home and my boss wouldn't like me to read the magazine during working hours. The only place where I can read your magazine is on the train.
And apart from that I don't like to read long articles on the screen.
I loved the PDF magazine and I hope you reconsider.

Daniel Lins de Albuquerque's picture

Hi, I'm from Brazil and in my country, a very small percentage of the population have a broad band connection. These people access the internet using a very expensive dial connection (unfortunately, telecommunication services here are not cheap) and they do a tremendous effort to get up to date with new technologies. To have a version of the magazine that can be read off line will give the opportunity to these people to get in contact with a great publication . Please, reconsider!

PS: I also use to download the pdf version of the magazine to my palm pilot to read it off line.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Bring back PDF or I'm outta here!

RickS's picture
Submitted by RickS on

Perhaps you could gain benefit from banner ads by releasing the html only version, followed a week later by the PDF version. I have dial-up internet (no high speed availabilty), I might read an article or two when it comes out, but the bulk of the reading would be PDF, as I can download it while doing other things. PDF files conserve my time, as I can read / skim them at whatever pace I like, paging, not scrolling. Occasionally I print articles as well.

rclay's picture
Submitted by rclay on

I am very disappointed at the exclusive on-line format. Normally I download the PDF and read parts of it on my desktop computer. Other parts I print and take with me for later viewing where a computer or internet connection is unavailable. I also let my desktop search software index the PDFs so that I can find articles easily at a later date. Alas, FSM is no longer a useful magazine. I'm not sure if it is a magazine at all.

Your supposition is wrong. Paper is not dead. The answer to your question, "will PDFs follow suit ?" is NO.

Eric Kilgore's picture

Even if it is a pdf generated from the website, I don't care...don't let pdf go away. I guess that I'm not alone in my opinion as I see from previous posts. Like others, I don't have time to read your mag online, so I print it off and read it at my leisure when I don't have connectivity.

If you are not going to publish PDF's any longer, please consider a "PRINTER FRIENDLY" version of your web articles. I enjoy the magazine and use the PDFs to archive issues of interest.

I guess I will have to look elsewhere for an accurate source of information that is considerate of their readership.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

"Paper—as well as PDF—is now a thing of the past.." this was one of the dumbest statements that I have read today. What would possess you to say such a uneducated statement?

Never mind spreading "obtuse" ideas. PDF's are not clumsy and are an ideal way of transporting information.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I agree with the above, it's the reason i book marked your site. I thought it was pretty unique to be able to get all of the contents offline in PDF format. I like to keep up with technology and other interesting ideas, having pdf meant i could have a copy on my pda or my phone for offline use.

Also using Mac OSX i could searching using spotlight finding information in your articles with ease.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

"Paper—as well as PDF—is now a thing of the past.." this was one of the dumbest statements that I have read today. What would possess you to say such a uneducated statement?

Never mind spreading "obtuse" ideas. PDF's are not clumsy and are an ideal way of transporting information.