Interactive PDF is dead—here’s what you can create from InDesign that’s even better

Justin | design,extensions,HTML5,InDesign,interaction,publishing,Tutorials | Monday, March 26th, 2018

tombstone for interactive PDF says R.I.P.

It sounds like I’m exaggerating doesn’t it?

I’m not.

Almost none of the interactivity in an interactive PDF actually works, even in Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Reader.

What doesn’t work in a PDF

Here’s a list of things that you can create with InDesign that don’t work in a PDF:

  • Animation
  • Video*
  • Animated GIFs
  • Multi-State Objects
  • Embedded HTML content (like YouTube videos)
  • Button actions related to several of the above items
  • Scrollable Frames
  • Custom page transitions (like flipbook pages)

Flash Player SWF icon broken down the middle*Video was supported previously in Acrobat and Adobe Reader, but it was dependent on the Flash Player (which no longer comes bundled with the Adobe apps).

The introduction of smartphones and tablets—almost none of which now support Flash—and a slew of new PDF readers, essentially guarantee that interactive PDF features will not work when your clients view your PDFs.

To see the breakdown of an interactive PDF in action, and to get a sneak peek at the solutions that I describe below, you can watch the following video.

Here’s what you can switch to today that supports interactivity

HTML. It’s the language of the web page that you’re reading right now.

HTML has all of the same layout capabilities that PDF does and has a much greater interactive capacity.

Remember the list of interactivity from above?

  • Animation
  • Video
  • Animated GIFs
  • Multi-State Objects
  • Embedded HTML content (like YouTube videos)
  • Button actions related to several of the above items
  • Scrollable Frames
  • Custom page transitions (like flipbook pages)

HTML supports all of them (and more).

Don’t know how to (or don’t care to) write HTML? Not a problem.

InDesign can export it for you.

How to create interactive HTML from Adobe InDesign

InDesign logoI’ve detailed three ways to export HTML from InDesign (included in the video above as well).

  1. Fixed Layout (FXL) EPUB
  2. Publish Online
  3. in5 (InDesign to HTML5)

Each of these solutions is HTML at its core.

Creating the interactivity with InDesign

It’s rather straight-forward to create interactivity with InDesign.

The tools are visually-oriented and easy-to-use, so you don’t have to know any code.

  • Video and animated GIFs can simply be placed in InDesign using File > Place.
  • HTML embeds (like YouTube, Google Maps, Twitter feeds, etc) can be pasted onto the page or inserted via Object > Insert HTML.
  • Animation, Button actions, and Object States can be created with InDesign’s built-in panels.
  • Scrollable Frames are supported via the Universal Scrolling Frames panel.
free digital publishing course taught by the expertsFor step-by-step lessons on how to create interactivity with InDesign, check this free course on Becoming a Digital Publishing Master.

Any of the HTML options in this article will then export this InDesign-based interactivity, so let’s look at each of those options in more detail.

Creating a FXL EPUB

An EPUB is essentially a zipped-up folder of HTML that can read by an EPUB reader app (like Apple iBooks or Adobe Digital Reader).

It’s typically used for ebooks.

InDesign lets you export FXL EPUB via File > Export.

Pros of FXL EPUB

The EPUB is the only HTML option that produces a single distributable file (an .epub) that can be (fairly) easily read like a PDF.

This makes it easier to email your digital content and, in some cases, easier to sell your content in a marketplace (such as the iBooks Store).

Cons of FXL EPUB

EPUB readers are inconsistent in what they support.

iBooks, for example, has a habit of blocking outside content (or even inside content that appears to be outside content).

The reader app controls the page transitions and the overall experience.

Using Publish Online

Publish Online is a “technology preview” from Adobe. It’s been in “preview” mode since 2015, so the future of this option is unclear, but it is super easy to use.

The quick and simple nature makes Publish Online a great tool for client and internal review.

Pros of Publish Online

It’s push-button publishing. With a single step, your interactive document is sent to Adobe’s servers and you’re given a URL (web address) where your content can be viewed online.

Cons of Publish Online

Publish Online content only lives on Adobe’s servers. You cannot put it directly on your site (though you can embed it inside of a container).

Adobe can choose to remove or alter your content at any time.

cannot edit - pencil with red circle and slashSince you don’t have access to the files, you also cannot customize them in any way.

Similarly, you cannot repurpose the HTML or convert it to a mobile app (which you could easily do with the actual HTML files).

Your Publish Online link is essentially private unless you choose to share it (though you cannot password protect it), which means it’s also not exposed to search engines, so it won’t appear in a Google search, or improve the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) of your site like HTML hosted on your own site would.

Publish Online uses the same underlying FXL export, which means it has some of the same underlying bugs, like the Object State rollover bug shown in the video above.

Creating HTML that you own with in5

in5 (InDesign to HTML5) logoin5 (InDesign to HTML5) is a custom HTML export that I created.

Once installed, you can export from within InDesign using File > Export HTML5 with in5…

in5 exports HTML to your local computer, so you can do anything that you want with it.

Pros of in5

Unlike Publish Online, with in5, you own the files that you export. You can put them on your own web servers.

can edit - pencil with green checkmarkYou can also customize the files as much as you would like and you can create mobile apps from your in5 output.

in5 also offers a huge amount of flexibility with several push-button customizations like flipping pages for digital magazines, and additional interactive options like 3D Flip Cards.

You can test drive in5 for free.

Cons of in5

in5 is a commercial tool, so there is an additional cost to use it (in5 pricing page).

Unlike Publish Online, in5 doesn’t automatically upload your content to the web, so you’d have to take this step yourself.

Bonus option: hacking Adobe’s FXL export

If you like the free price tag of Publish Online, but want more freedom with the files, check out Keith Gilbert’s free script, which uses the underlying FXL export to save your files as local HTML. It’s not as fully-featured as in5, but very handy if your project has no budget.

Which digital publishing option is best for your project?

PDF is still a great format for static documents, but if you want interactivity take a long, hard look at the HTML options that I’ve outlined above.

cover for digital publishing guideIf you need more information about which digital publishing option best fits your project, check out the free Digital Publishing Technology Guide.

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23 thoughts on “Interactive PDF is dead—here’s what you can create from InDesign that’s even better”

  1. judblakely says:

    Justin, in5 is a brilliant tool for getting the most out of any on-line publication. To me, in5 amounts to kind of a “magic Swiss Army knife” that is about as easy to grasp and apply as a magic Swiss Army knife can be. Your brief tutorials hit the necessary bull’s-eyes without fail and have zero fat. They are as enjoyable to watch as they are valuable in what they provide a viewer. Keep on keepin’ on.

    1. Justin says:

      Thanks, Jud! Really appreciated it. 🙂

  2. David Bell says:

    Very, very helpful…thank you.

    1. Justin says:

      Glad to hear it, David! 🙂

  3. Thanks Justin,

    This was an informative article. As the co-founder of InteractivePDF.com I do agree with its limitations but there is huge opportunity for iPDF documents especially in the Learning and Training industry – iPDFs provide exceptional learning support for people who need immediate access to large amounts of information to learn a new software system like SAP for example. In this case we have developed iPDF solution that can help all staff learn what they need to know on how to use SAP for their new job.

    So iPDFs are NOT Dead. They are just not a silver bullet for all things interactive.

    But we all must see what solves the problem we are looking solve in the best way.

    Hope we can continue this dialogue. Thanks again for the article.

    1. Jud Blakely says:

      This seems to be a reply of integrity from someone with a persuasive case to make for interactive PDFs. All I can say is, please make the case, which I believe is quite likely to reinforce your view that interactive PDFs are either dead or dying.

    2. Justin says:

      Hi Harish,

      My guess is that the value to your customers (and thus the opportunity) is in the content that you create, and not than the Interactive PDF format itself.

      If you were to rebrand away from a format that’s interactivity is based almost entirely on the Flash Player, you could provide your customers with even more value by delivering in the format that best suits their project (rather than being bound to a dying technology—though you may occasionally still deliver PDFs). This would open up new interactive possibilities, and let you serve your customers better, instead of working with both hands tied behind your back. 😉

  4. Sam says:

    Does in5 allow exporting of the HTML to a portable container format including all content that can be easily emailed and opened by the recipient? Can this document also be printed?

    In other words is it possible to create an equivalent to flash based interactive PDF’s yet, and if not why get rid of flash without a replacement?

    1. Justin says:

      Flash was gotten rid of in the rise of Apple iOS, which didn’t support it.

      HTML can be zipped, then unzipped on the other end, but I recommend sending via Dropbox (Box, Drive, or similar) as a shared link instead of attaching because some email clients block attachments that contain JavaScript.

      The Viewer Display options let you include a PDF for printing. More info:
      https://ajarproductions.com/blog/2017/09/11/viewer-display-options-control-bar-in5-v3-1-sneak-peek/

      1. Sam says:

        Hi Justin,
        I don’t think a zip file containing html is the way forward to distribute documents via email, as clicking on a link or opening a zip file is not the same as opening a portable document format.

        Adobe need to use it, if the organisations’ goal is to lose it then InDesign is relegated to print and Adobe don’t have a viable future.

        In terms of export from In5 to html will kerning of twins/triplets/ letter pairs carry over to exported html for publishing? I ask as this is one way Adobe might stay relevant.

        Sincerely,
        Sam

      2. Justin says:

        HTML does not support kerning pairs (as far as I know) at this time. There is always the option to render text as images to preserve these specifics. I don’t think the web will ever be as concerned with typographic details as a print design application.

  5. Sam says:

    Thank you Justin. This has been a really great help.

    1. Justin says:

      Glad to hear it, Sam. 🙂

  6. wiki baba says:

    thanks justin for such details………..

  7. Emma says:

    I want to design a PDF file which enables me to write some data in it. In other words, I want to design a PDF and I want to add some objects in it like “TEXT BOX, CHECK BOX, RADIO BUTTON, ETC”
    and at the end of the page I want to add a button which enables me to send this document to specefic email which I can select or I want this button to enable me to print this document.

    How can I do that ? any ideas ?

    Thanks

    1. Justin says:

      That’s a bit far afield from the content of this post. Check out a Linkedin Learning course on PDF Form Elements.

  8. Sam says:

    Adobe have to make the same decision as when InDesign was conceived, I think we need a new (well funded and resourced) transparent (for community development purposes) publishing and design environment which allows export to multimedia.

    It can still be called InDesign.

    • html
    • PDF including html+css+js/as wrapper for distribution
    • PDF for print from the same file as the last point.
    • A transparent script editor
    • InDesign kerning on html/pdf wrapper export
    • Some new methods of setting up character/paragraph styles and also on the corresponding html + css export using units set as required e.g. ems/mm/px/points/vw/vh/pw/ph/% (and so on) for dimensions and also with additional control over the values depending on user set document variations = Custom responsive breakpoints set by the designer as required on all page, typographical and content dimensions.

  9. Don says:

    Great plugin! BUT WAY TOO EXPENSIVE. please lower cost.

    1. Justin says:

      Hi Don,
      Glad you like the plugin!
      Sorry, but I’m not planning to lower the cost. You can always get a monthly plan and cancel when you’re done. 🙂

  10. John Frederick Chionglo says:

    Justin (2018) lamented the loss of some interactive objects that can be created in InDesign and exported to an interactive PDF. The losses do not mean interactive PDFs are a dying or dead breed. A PDF form application that uses JavaScript and the Acrobat/JavaScript API is an interactive feature still available in PDF and supported by Adobe Acrobat. It can be used to replace some lost interactive objects and more.

    It is possible to create interactive objects in InDesign and to export them as PDF form applications. If you require an interactive object in an interactive PDF but it is unavailable then it may be worthwhile to include software development in your workflow to give your InDesign user the ability to create the interactive object in InDesign and export it as a PDF form application. With a PDF form application that use JavaScript and the Acrobat/JavaScript API it is possible to combine unique visual graphics with innovative interactive features for novel user experiences. The interactive PDF version of “InDesign Interactive Objects as PDF Form Applications” includes examples of PDF form applications — please check out the following URL:

    https://www.slideshare.net/JohnChionglo/indesign-interactive-objects-as-pdf-form-applications.

    1. Justin says:

      Hi John,

      1) InDesign doesn’t export all interactive objects to PDF (see the article above).

      2) As you mention, JavaScript in a PDF only functions in Acrobat (and probably only on the desktop). One of the main issues described in this the proliferation of mobile devices and non-Adobe PDF readers. That is still a major problem (coupled with the fact that most people creating PDFs are not able to custom program them–nor would they want to even if they could).

      While there might be some .001% of use cases where injecting JavaScript into a PDF saves the day, it’s not what 99.999% of people are looking for when they create/refer to an interactive PDF.

      There is a place where JavaScript roams free and dynamic content can be easily created and both work on nearly every device…it’s called the web.

      I still think there are great uses for PDF that I couldn’t live without, but PDFs are not a good delivery mechanism for true interactivity (for all of the reasons listed in the article above).

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