Reading PDF's on a Windows Mobile Device

Today I thought I'd try setting up the iPAQ to read PDF files. After using Linux and OS X so much, I'd forgotten that Windows-based OS's don't include a PDF reader. It's inexcusable given that Adobe has released the specification under very liberal license terms.

First, I did a Google search for "pdf windows mobile". I found Foxit, which is free and good on desktop Windows, but requires a license for the mobile version. After wading through a bunch of other sites, all with readers starting at $20 or more, I finally found the Adobe site with their "official" reader. The download page was very confusing, with two different version, one labeled "2002" and another labeled "2.0". It was impossible to tell which was newest, other than going online and finding news stories about the product.

After downloading the executable, I used Missing Sync to transfer it over to the device using the "Install Software" command. It took a few minutes to transfer over Bluetooth, but worked as expected. On the device, I tried to open the installer, but I got an error message about the file not being a valid executable.

It turns out that Adobe (and other Windows Mobile software vendors) often package their applications in desktop Windows executables, and set it up so ActiveSync will automatically install the application. This causes serious problems when trying to install from a non-Windows OS - in fact, you can't even install it from the PDA itself! On top of these issues, programs relying on ActiveSync have known compatibility issues with Vista, due to the replacement of ActiveSync. To install on the iPAQ, I had to browse to C:\Windows\ActiveSync\Adobe, and copy the cryptically named to the device manually. It's a very good thing I noticed that file being copied during the installation, otherwise I would have not had any idea to look in that folder.

Once I opened and installed the CAB file on the iPAQ, everything worked as expected. I was able to open and read the few PDF's I transferred with Missing Sync's file syncronization plugin. Performance was acceptable; it felt faster than many Desktop PC's I've used! The one feature I miss is being able to double-tap on a location to zoom in. As well, one of the reasons why PDF's are not suitable for document distribution, in contrast to something like XHTML, is clear: only simple, 1-column PDF's can be re-flowed to fit the narrow screen of the iPAQ. Academic papers, with the standard two-column layout, are only readable if the device orientation is rotated. At least the feature is present, though I could only get it to work with the User's Guide PDF included with the application.