Friday, May 10, 2013

Rendering office documents in HTML - an idea whose time has come

A while ago I was working on a project that needed rendering PDFs on iOS. There are several ways to do that. On iOS, that is. My client wanted a solution for Android too, and was complaining about the lack of similar capabilities there. Since Android wasn't one of my areas of competence at the time I wasn't involved with that effort directly. However I kept hearing about the need to use some 3rd party, rather expensive, libraries.

So naturally it dawned on me this idea: why don't the "owners" of the PDF format, Adobe, provide a cross-platform viewer. The natural solution would be an HTML based approach, since virtually all popular platforms provide a way to display HTML. At the time I was thinking that the capabilities provided by HTML 5 and CSS 3 should be enough to accomplish the "print-quality" level of rendering offered by Adobe's Acrobat Reader or Apple's Preview. Since Adobe wasn't doing much about it, it seemed a pretty good opportunity. Turns out that wasn't such a bad idea. In fact folks at Crocodoc were banging at it since 2006. Today was the payback. Good for them.

I only heard about them today. A brief glance at their API shows that right now it fetches the documents from some servers, where they're processed and converted from PDF to HTML. With this dependency on a server-side component it doesn't seem to have support for offline viewing. I guess one could hack around and save the generated HTML and all the referenced components (images, CSS, and what not), but that may be a brittle solution. With their new owner I'm sure they'll keep improving their technology and this may well become a compelling cross-platform document rendering solution.

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