Pascal Cuoq - 22nd Jan 2013

Blogger of multiple qualities Harry McCracken was recently still looking for “an iPad PDF reader which can handle giant files which are 100s of pages long without choking”. Sorry I meant “STILL looking”.

PDF is a nineteen-nineties technology to display text and pictures. Key quote: “Each PDF file encapsulates a complete description of a fixed-layout flat document including the text fonts graphics and other information needed to display it”.

Now you might think that any proposal made in 1991 to master the intricacies of displaying text and pictures would have succeeded by 2013 but apparently not according to Harry's call for help.

Fortunately another nineteen-nineties technology came to the rescue: the Djvu format was created in 1996 for the purpose I wish I was kidding to store text and images. Key quote: “a computer file format designed primarily to store scanned documents especially those containing a combination of text line drawings indexed color images and photographs”.

It is good to see progress at work. Even if we acknowledge that it takes years to get these things right and that a project started in 1996 is bound to be more technologically advanced than one started in 1991 there remains the question what the file have we been collectively doing during the years 2000?

This leads me into a personal anecdote. In 1995 I was admitted at the ENS of Lyon (and I may be thinking about it because I am visiting back there on January 29. Drop by if you are around…). These were interesting times: 1995 is more or less the year the internet slash the world wide web started to become widespread in the US and then in other parts of the world. We were privileged to have access to it already at the ENSL.

In 1996 I left France for a 2-and-a-half months internship at Indiana University. Before I left I taught my father to use the 28800 BPS external modem I was leaving him to dial long-distance to Lyon impersonate me on the ENSL's server upload a text file containing news of the family download a text file that might contain news from me and disconnect as soon as possible because heck that was expensive (although cheaper than any available alternative). This was done with software that was called either “Kermit” or “ZMODEM”. Kermit I am pretty sure it was. You could not trust these new-fangled protocols then any more than you can now.

Nowadays my father has his own e-mail address and he may write to anyone he likes as opposed to leaving messages in a dropbox for me. And he does not pay long-distance rates for it.

But I can't help thinking that all progress that has occurred since then was incremental. Slightly better for much cheaper. There has been the iPhone. But then again the first PalmPilot was launched in 1997.

So what have we been doing during the years 2000? What technologies were so life-changing that we are going to take them for granted in the 2010s?

Pascal Cuoq
22nd Jan 2013