Acrobat Plug-Ins

If you’ve seen my resume – or talked to me lately, you know that I create Acrobat plug-ins for a living. When people hear that, they usually think something like “Don’t forget to pick up the dry cleaning” or “I need to bring my cat to the vet for the rabies shot”… Yes, I understand, this may not be the most exciting topic, but probably only because you don’t know enough about what these “plug-ins” are, so let me explain.



Adobe Acrobat is a very powerful tool, more powerful that most users actually realize. I wont go into any details about how powerful exactly – at least not today. Lets just say that it has something for everybody. However, you may need something in addition to what Adobe provides, something that still is in the general area of PDF. Adobe may not have considered your needs because either the target market for “your” feature is too small, or to far out there… Or you are so far ahead of everybody else that they have not even thought about that feature yet.

Adobe did however do a very interesting thing: They created an interface that allows 3rd party developers to create solutions based on Adobe Acrobat – using plug-ins. It is a very powerful interface, and hence not something that you can pick up in an afternoon. There are several thousand pages of API documentation that one needs to understand before a plug-in should be written.

A plug-in is – from a technical point of view – a module or library that gets loaded dynamically at runtime. Acrobat will scan it’s plug-ins directory and will load any modules it finds. Once loaded, such a plug-in can extend Acrobat by e.g. adding menu items, toolbuttons, or event handlers (e.g. a function that gets executed whenever a documents gets loaded).



Interestingly enough, the plug-ins directory of a fresh Adobe Acrobat installation is not empty… A lot of Acrobat’s functionality is actually implemented as plug-ins. You can verify that on a Windows system by temporarily disabling all plug-ins by holding down the Shift key when bringing up Acrobat. That will load the application without any plug-ins. When you compare the toolbar or the menu bar with a fully loaded application, you’ll see what portion of the Acrobat core functionality is actually implemented in plug-ins.

The plug-in interface has different abstraction levels (COS, PDE, AV, …). If there is enough interest, I will provide information about how to navigate that API, and how to structure a plug-in.

The Acrobat SDK is available for free from Adobe’s Acrobat Development Center.

Here are a few examples of commercially available plug-ins that I’ve used:

  • Enfocus PitStop Professional:
    This is a preflight tool.
  • Quite Imposing Plus:
    The best PDF based imposition tool that I am aware of.
  • Enfocus Browser:
    Allows to review and change the internal structure of a PDF file.
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7 Responses to Acrobat Plug-Ins

  1. Michele says:

    I love the pics karl heinz!

  2. James says:

    Cool stuff…working on a plugin right now, and agree – very powerful.

  3. Tammy says:

    Thank you for your very interesting article! I’m just starting to learn about plugins and can’t wait to try some out!

  4. Harris Honickman says:

    You do have some great pictures on your site. Did you take them? Are you into photography – digital or film?

    – Harris

  5. khk says:

    The pictures are all mine. Most of them have been digital from the moment of capture, a few were scanned from film.

  6. Bill Fleming says:

    A request for help with Acrobat plugin.
    My copy of Acrobat Extemded Pro is advertised as having native capability for importing DXF files. However, it crashes when creating a PDF from DXF file.
    Troubleshooting shows a plugin ‘import3d.api’ listed as an Adobe plugin, but it is not installed. That file did not come with the program, and Google can’t find it.
    I have tried to reach Adobe technical support about this; their consumerization of their customer interface, even for this commercial product, made that approach frustrating and unproductive.
    I would apprecciate any information that you care to share about the import3d plugin, and about what seems to be Acrobat mis-advertising.
    What plugins are available from you?
    Thanks for your attention to this.

  7. khk says:

    The plug-in import3d.api is a part of Acrobat 9 Pro Extended – you will find it in the directory C:\Program Files\Adobe\Acrobat 9.0\Acrobat\plug_ins – so it definitely did come with your installation of Acrobat. I don’t work for Adobe, and don’t know anything about how the 3D import works, so I can only speculate about why the plug-in is crashing. Even if there is something wrong with the DXF file, Acrobat should not crash, but again, there is nothing I can do to help you. I know that the DXF -> PDF conversion is working, I just tried a file to rule out any problems with recent updates. So, is it possible that there is something wrong with your file, or your installation?
    I don’t sell any of-the-shelf plug-ins, I create custom plug-ins based on customer requirements.

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