Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Adobe, Taxes, and Government

My State Government and especially Adobe have annoyed me. For reasons that escape me, the Wisconsin e-File Form-1, Form-1A, and Form-WIZ, all located at the Wisconsin Department of Revenue e-file page here, all require Adobe PDF Reader version 9. I ask: Why?

For those that don't know, I run Linux and only Linux, and Adobe PDF Reader 9 is not available for Linux. Even if it were, I'm not sure I would use it. It's a horrible, bloated, insecure bit of software. It also comes with "for free" Adobe AIR. I don't want Adobe AIR. I want to view PDFs. Do I have to install Adobe AIR to view PDFs, too? Adobe PDF Reader 9 and Adobe AIR are not Open Source, and so I am loathe to give them any quarter.

Adobe has a decidedly anti-Linux stance, in my opinion - apparently they feel there is no market for a 64-bit version of Flash (for Linux), and the other solutions (like nspluginwrapper), no matter how well-intentioned or implemented, still can't cure the problem of trying to use a 64-bit browser and a 32-bit plugin. I use the 32-bit Firefox just so that flash doesn't crash literally every other time I use it. I still dislike the use of flash in any case, as I have no control whatsoever over how it operates, interacts with my system, and so on. It seems like once a month there is a security problem in Flash!

The PDF format itself is supposed to be reasonably open, but if that's true then why can't I use okular, kpdf, evince, or xpdf to view and use the PDFs as provided by my own state government?

There are several issues here. The first issue is that my state government is requiring the use of proprietary software to use e-File when I see no reason for that requirement. Open Formats and USABLE documents should be a legal requirement for governments! The Open Office document standard should be used, and when something like PDF appears necessary, at least use a version that works on more than the very-latest install of proprietary software.

My guess is that there is a bit of javascript or whatever inside the PDF which tries to identify the viewer and simply bails if it's not Adobe PDF Reader 9. The actual text is:

To view the full contents of this document, you need a later version of the PDF viewer. You can upgrade to the latest version of Adobe Reader from www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html

For further support, go to www.adobe.com/support/products/acrreader.html

In light of these recent Adobe PDF view issues, the recent (and seemingly rather serious) Adobe PDF security issues, the recent Adobe Flash issues, and so on I'm wondering if people aren't going to start to flock to the reputedly vastly better architected Silverlight by, shudder, Microsoft, a company with it's own long and glorious history of supporting open standards. It would appear, however, that Silverlight (for now) is an exception, as there is a reasonably free and open implementation with Moonlight. Given what I've seen so far, I'm starting to give hope that Moonlight starts to put the hurt on Flash, or that Adobe truly opens the Flash *format* so that truly open and free implementations can begin to flourish.

The most remarkable thing about free software like Linux, BSD, KDE, and others is that once people use it, they stay with it not necessarily because it works better or looks better or is more reliable - I think it comes down to choice. People *like* having choice and more and more often people are recognizing at some level things like that vendor lock-in (Adobe, Microsoft) grate against people in very fundamental if non-obvious ways. People *don't* like being told what to do, what to run, what they can and can't do.

UPDATE: at least part of the issue has to do with Okular (via poppler's) incomplete support for javascript. The Adobe spec for the javascript support is reported to be some 700 pages long. So at least part of the problem lies there. However, does it *really* require Adobe PDF Viewer 9 or would 8 suffice? Javascript appeared in version 7, if I recall.

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