PDF Readers near you

Do you get this as well? A PDF delivered along with a message that you can use Adobe Acrobat Reader (r) to open that file?

PDF is a (relatively) open standard. It is an ISO standard (19005-1), for one thing. This also means that there are alternate implementations of the standard. And you might have good reasons to avoid the Adobe implementation. For instance the number of exploits against their implementation, or because it doesn’t run on your hardware / software platform. Most of the time I’m at a computer which is perfectly capable of dealing with PDF files through a Free (both as in speech and in beer) PDF reader, and the "download Reader" just strikes me as weird. I get these PDF files from travel agencies, hosting providers, financial advisors and local governments. I often reply asking them to update the text accompanying the file to say something like "You need a PDF reader to view this file. Get a free one or use something else." The PDF Readers (.org) site is a good place to point people and organizations. The site points out the available options and how to get a Free PDF reader.

The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has started a campaign to promote the use of Free PDF readers by local governments. The idea is to point out where your local government is pointing only to the proprietary software solution and to get them to adapt the text to offer more choice. There’s a contest involved, as well.

As far as the PDF readers site goes, it points to muPDF; that’s one I would personally avoid for semi-technical reasons: the code is terrible and utterly undocumented. Maybe the application works — but it’s not something that satisfies my code-readability test. Not one of the files has a license header, although the thing as a whole is licensed under the GPL version 3 or a commercial license.

Turning to the more popular — or rather, the recommended readers on Free Software operating systems — selections, there’s Okular and Evince. I use both of them fairly regularly — Evince is my fallback on OpenSolaris during those times that I’m compiling KDE. Following the links from PDF Readers to the two web pages for Okular and Evince shows a pretty big difference: the latter is focused on packages and contains a link to a how-to-compile page, while the former is all about building the software from scratch with a comment that there’s probably packages available. Neither of these strike me as a particularly good user experience. I wonder if there’s any feasible (technically and privacy-preserving) way to detect the OS so as to improve the download suggestions.

9 thoughts on “PDF Readers near you

  1. Yes, there is a way to detect the OS: Read the HTTP header, it’s usually part of the user agent string. In fact, many websites do just that (either for offering specialised pages to visitors, or to create more detailed statistics).

    • @dutch: I suggest you ask the pdfreaders.org people; it’s possible they’re just not using the FSFE’s translation framework (and valued translators) to do it.

  2. Well there is a way to detect the OS by testing the user agent. But it does not allow to detect between distributions…

    What could be done is to have a kioslave (for instance install) and then if the browser is konqueror show the link “install://okular” and that will start packagekit (or whatever the distro use) to install okular.

  3. I like the idea behind pdfreaders.org but I think the page itself is a catastrophe and currently I won’t point anybody there. The same is true for the pages where the FSF wants to be linked from according to the current campaign (ie everywhere but at least government pages etc).


    * If it was a really neutral and fair page, the would be links to closed source readers like Adobe and FoxIt, too.

    * The blurb at the top of the page should be moved to the bottom. My users don’t care about Open Source philosophy, all they want is a stupid PDF reader.

    * The page already recognizes the OS and highlights the available readers with a green background. Still, people I’d point there would still be confused, so please display only the readers which are available and easy to install on the OS the user is coming from (nope, Okular for Windows currently doesn’t fulfill the latter category).

    * Also, please link to easy to follow download pages like Adobe Reader offers (ie. I don’t want to have to scroll around on the page to find the download button).

    * They link to (the non-existent page of) KPDF. When I saw that I laughed hard and closed the browser window 🙂

  4. Even though I love free software, and use Okular as my main PDF reader myself – as long as those free readers don’t provide download pages at easy-to-remember-urls that feature a big shiny button which lets users (especially Ms Windows users) download the corresponding installer (for their language and operating system) with a single click, I’ll keep referring non-tech-savvy people to get.adobe.com/reader/ in my mails.

    (Also, the installer shouldn’t require more thinking than clicking “OK” two or three times.)

    • @malte, @uetsah: again, the best people to comment to regarding the campaign or the content are the pdfreaders.org folks and the fsfe themselves. I’ve passed on – paraphrased – your comments as best I can, but I don’t speak for any of those organizations. And I, too, was surprised to find an out-and-out broken link to KPDF (which does still exist, if you go looking for a KDE3-based Linux system or install KDE Trinity).

  5. @adridg: I know that you’re only the messenger but your blogging on fsfe.org and I did try to contact the people behind pdfreaders.org about the broken KPDF link first time I heard about it, about a year or so ago. I think I also pointed out some of the other flaws, I’d have to browse my mail archive to find out. Anyway, I didn’t get any reply.

    When I heard about the competition I went to have a look at the page again and was surprised that it is still in a state where it has naught chance of being linked from any serious site. Well, compared to a year or so again there’s money involved now, donated money if I’m not mistaken.

    If the FSFE wants to have a slight chance of keeping people from linking to Adobe, they have to introducing a vendor neutral PDF reader site, not an OSS centered (yep, I know that there is a F is FSF :). Something like the Microsoft Browser chooser page (or whatever it is called).

    Funnily, when I just tried to find out when the page first appeared, I stumbled upon this blog post from early 2009 which points out most of the stuff I did: http://weblogs.mozillazine.org/gerv/archives/2009/02/usability_analysis_pdfreadersorg.html