Now an ubiquity in the document exchange, PDF format was first developed in 1993 by Adobe. Extremely flexible and originally designed to disrupt paper, PDFs was declared dead multiple times in the meantime, but the ecosystem around is better than ever. After the release of the PDF specification by Adobe in 2008, the format got another boost in popularity.

Technically complicated and the domain of some of the best tech minds, the PDF software industry had supported multitude of small and mid-size companies around the globe, but rarely attracted the attention of the investors.

What brought on the wave of investor interest in the PDF libraries is the rapidly changing landscape of how PDF documents are generated, edited and viewed.

Before the cloud era, the PDF software was primarily understood as a desktop, and later iOS and Android applications for viewing and editing PDF files. The landscape was dominated by Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat, which once accounted for up to 40% of Adobe’s revenue. Growth of mobile spurred the development of multiple mobile apps with PDF functionality for Apple and Android devices. Yet the mobile business model was difficult – B2C and one-off purchases.

At the same time, the enterprise software was rapidly migrating to the Cloud, inviting the whole new type of PDF software. Now, enabling PDF functionality in the cloud web application was necessary – viewing, editing, generating documents inside the apps, without a desktop app. This changed the nature of the business itself as well: now B2B, developer-focused, and shifting to the subscription model, the industry was finally able to scale rapidly and attracted a wave of capital. The pandemic helped: making paper, the original competitor of PDF, even more obsolete.

Mundane tasks, such as splitting, merging and converting were also shifting to the web, allowing the websites, such as iLovePDF and Small PDF to become some of the most popular websites across the globe: #117 and #173 respectively (Alexa) with 50M+ monthly visits.

Companies providing the new infrastructure for the web apps explosion were quickly caught up by top tech funds:

  • In 2019, PDFTron first received the $71M from Silversmith and later strategic investment from Thoma Bravo
  • In 2021, PSPDFkit attracted €100M from Insight Partners
  • AirSlate, which counts PDFFiller among its products, got funded by a conglomerate led by Morgan Stanley

At the same time, vendors of desktop PDF software were also diversifying into the adjacent business lines: most commonly Forms and E-signatures. Adobe, Nitro Software, Foxit and airSlate each have completed an acquisition of e-signature company.

Nitro Software, an Australian developer of PDF software, now increasingly focuses on the e-signature offering. The company estimates that the Total Addressable Market for the e-signature software is worth $17B, compared to the $11B for PDF. Initially having an in-house developed solution, in November 2021 the company raised $140M to acquire Connective, a European provider of e-signature solutions.

Companies, such as PDFFiller are betting not only on signatures, but also on forms functionality, capitalizing on the fact that PDFs are still one of the primary ways of filling in applications.

The question now is whether PDF format will be in the end disrupted as it disrupted paper documents. After 30 years of being challenged it seems that it is still thriving. Now providing the crucial part to the growing web applications industry and backed by the leading PE funds, it seems the PDF software companies are only to grow stronger.