SourceForge Interview: PDF Split and Merge

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SourceForge’s “Staff Pick” Project of the Month is PDF Split and Merge (PDFsam), which it describes as an “easy-to-use tool with graphical and command line interfaces to split, merge, mix, and rotate your PDF documents.” SourceForge sat down with project manager Andrea Vacondio to discuss PDFsam’s history and future direction.

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Tell me about the PDFsam project, please.

PDFsam is an open-source desktop utility I started developing in 2005. Its original purpose was to help users performing a simple split and merge on PDF documents but it grew quite a lot from there. Now it provides a comprehensive set of features.

What made you start this?

I wanted to practice my Java developer skills and I remembered that few years before I could not find a free, open-source utility to merge my bachelor degree thesis. I soon found there was already an open-source Java library called iText providing a PDF manipulations API. Developing a user interface over the iText library seemed like a reasonable task to exercise my Java knowledge.

Has the original vision been achieved?

Sure, PDFsam is now used by thousands of people every day and I keep working on it.

Who can benefit the most from your project?

Occasional users, students needing to organize their notes, users dealing with digital documents (payslips, taxes forms, etc). We all have to deal with PDF documents in some way and PDFsam makes it a little easier.

What is the need for this particular split and merge tool?

PDF editors are often commercial and cumbersome. PDFsam is simple, multi platform, and it doesn’t require any training or documentation. It is not supposed to replace a full-fledged PDF editor but it usually fits situations when the purchase of a commercial solution is not justified. A student trying to merge together all their physics class notes, an avid reader trying to extract few chapters from their e-books, the accountant sending your tax declaration upside down are just few examples where PDFsam shines.

What’s the best way to get the most out of using PDFsam?

Read the features list but don’t expect it to do things it is not supposed to; it is not a replacement for other famous commercial products but it often helps.

What has your project team done to help build and nurture your community?

We have a forum where users can ask questions or suggest features and we try to reply to every single post. Most of the PDFsam features, except for the original split and merge, came from users suggestions from real-use cases.

Have you all found that more frequent releases helps build up your community of users?

Unfortunately, I never managed to find the time for short release cycles. PDFsam has been a “spare time” project for long and releases come when I have time to implement new features, it all depends on how busy my week is.

What was the first big thing that happened for your project?

A French magazine wrote an article about PDFsam.

What helped make that happen?

People started using PDFsam and the voice spread, despite a limited set of features at that time. It was super-easy to use and, like I said, we all have to deal with the PDF format.

What was the net result for that event?

PDFsam gained visibility and I realized it wasn’t something just for my entertainment because people were actually using it.

What is the next big thing for PDFsam?

PDFsam v3, the upcoming new release. I am completely rewriting it with eight years of experience, using some updated libraries, new technologies, and adding more functionality. I hope it grows into a sustainable business so I can dedicate more time to it and make it a more professional tool.

How long do you think that will take?

The first milestone release available to the public should be ready this Fall sometime.

Do you have the resources you need to make that happen?

Kind of. Some time ago I quit my daily job as software developer to be able to work on my personal projects, PDFsam tops the list. It’s a gamble but I think PDFsam v3 has the potential to grow into something professional and sustainable. If I am wrong I will go back to my traditional software developer job and PDFsam will remain a “spare time project.”

If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently for PDFsam?

Probably nothing.

Why?

PDFsam and its satellite projects have been my playground for a while where I could experiment with things I couldn’t try at work. They helped me to grow as a developer and I am very happy with my career path, I wouldn’t change anything of it.

Is there anything else we should know?

Thanks to PDFsam I switched from a FOSS user to a developer. This made me realize just how much effort goes into creating open source tools. So, don’t be shy, user support and feedback is extremely important to us, a message, a dollar, a tweet, a thumbs up, a polite criticism, everything adds up to keep we developers motivated. In the end, this helps us deliver better software to the open source community.

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