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Digital Transformation

Building PDF infrastructure for the internet

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By Simone Timen

Developing against PDFs is notoriously difficult. The easiest way to unlock valuable data from your paperwork is to adopt a PDF API.

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Building PDF infrastructure for the internet

The PDF is the most widely adopted file format for paperwork in the world. Over 2.5 trillion PDF documents are in existence today and that number continues to grow. Given the ubiquity of the PDF, you would think that writing software to work with this format would be easy, but most engineers will tell you otherwise. The tedium of working with PDFs is part of the reason that so many industries struggle to migrate towards a data-first paperwork approach.

Developing against PDFs is hard

While we expect to be able to interact with PDF forms today, that wasn’t their original purpose. When PDFs were introduced in the 1990s, it gave users the ability to exchange and read documents across different systems like Mac and Windows for the first time ever. But the file format was only designed for human consumption of information and prioritized maintaining rendering consistency, not data transfer. Those factors combined have made it difficult to build software that works with the underlying data on the PDF.

Part of that difficulty lies in the fact that PDFs are designed on a coordinate-based system. Let’s say an engineer wants to replicate a PDF. This involves hand coding all the coordinates and drawing the necessary commands in order to achieve that. Given how repetitive the process is, engineers sometimes spend months building software that can extract PDF data and send it where it needs to go (like a CRM).

On top of that, the software that’s actually built for PDFs is usually rigid and only written for a specific use case. Paperwork on the other hand is varied, even within the same industry. Some documents can be fairly basic, while others have repeating pages, tables, and even logic. So, engineers find themselves writing code over and over again to parse each of these variations.

Data-first paperwork with PDF APIs

It’s obvious that PDF data is important. So, how do you unlock valuable data from your paperwork without spending months hand coding the process? The easiest way is to adopt a PDF API.

With only a few lines of code, you can integrate an API directly into your website or app, allowing you to fill, generate, or e-sign PDFs with a single API call. Well-designed PDF APIs allow you to implement solutions without needing to understand the PDF specification and quickly demonstrate value.

In addition to cutting down on the initial development time, you’re also offloading any ongoing infrastructure management or updates to the API provider, allowing you to focus on the development of your core product. Did we mention that you’ll never have to hand-code PDF coordinates or draw commands ever again?

The future of paperwork is scalable

As more and more companies continue to be built on a data-first approach, bringing paperwork online is more pertinent now than ever. At the end of the day, building bespoke software for every PDF isn’t scalable. Adopting a well-designed PDF API ultimately helps you scale your paperwork in a flexible and easy-to-use way- something you don’t get when building PDF software for specific use cases.

If you’re interested in bringing your PDFs online, reach out to us at We’d love to hear from you and get you moving towards a data-first paperwork approach.

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