Interview with Eugene Xiong: Making PDFs More Useful

By Lauren Keyson and Sarah Grieco

I came up with a decision that many people thought was unwise. I decided to compete against Adobe,” said Eugene Xiong, Founder of Foxit, a leading innovator in the document technology field. “They spent more than 10 years to build that stack of technology; I decided to build one myself.”

Xiong is a genius – when he was 15 years old he started at the University of Science & Technology in China.  Now a giant international company, he began on the premise that he believed documents were the most wide-held ways to exchange information and maintain workflow.

Eugene Xiong: A lot of people spend a ton of time working on documents. Of course, a lot of time gets wasted. FoxIt is trying to bring the document into a connected world.

There is a lot of information connecting documents, applications, etc. Also, we believe the connection is the future of developing intelligence of documents.

PDFs are good because there is a universal format and you can follow it no matter what kind of documentation you have.  On the other hand, the PDF itself hasn’t evolved in many, many years. We don’t think it’s normal. That’s why we are building this new kind of format, a “Smart Document.” The major smart document formats we are working on are Connected PDF. We believe PDF’s should be connected. Right now, everything in the world is connected.

Lauren Keyson: Out of all the documents, how did you settle on a PDF?

EX: I asked myself this question 13 years ago.  I was at a small shop in China. I suddenly realized almost all of them are in PDF format. At that time, the Adobe Reader 5.0 was very, very slow; the UX was so lousy.  I said I think I can do a better job than Adobe. Several years later we realized this is bravery.  I was very brave at that time.  We just decided to keep doing that even though later on we realized it was so hard. The reason why Adobe has virtually no competition, it has over 90% of the market. After more than 10 years, we marched on and kept doing what we believed in. I was spending years and years doing the coding myself across all teams. Finally, we built a technology that we believe is more optimized than any other technology in the world.

LK: So, you’re a young person running a startup. You don’t have any money but you do have courage — but then you come across a challenge. How did you deal with that?

EX: We’ve had a number of challenges. The first roadblock for me was getting access to Adobe technology.  For example, it’s so hard to display a PDF. If you want to view a PDF, you have to render it, which is a difficult task, and I didn’t know how to do it. So, I contacted Adobe and asked if I could license a rendering agent so I can build an application that works with Adobe Reader and Acrobat. Adobe came back and said, “Sure! However, you have to pay a royalty. Also, if we release a new version of Acrobat your license expires. Your license only works for the older version.” So I’d have to negotiate with them again. So, I realized I don’t have that kind of money.

I had to go through many sleepless nights. I remember one night I was having dinner with a friend in Beijing. I had a number of shots and I cannot remember how I got into the office. When I got there and I couldn’t sleep with all the alcohol keeping me awake. Then I opened up my computer and worked on the code. Somehow that night I solved the most difficult technology problem I had for half a year I put off. The most important thing is to keep thinking about it. Even when I was half drunk I was still thinking about how to solve that particular problem. It was figuring out how to draw that type of graphic in the most efficient way. I knew the dumb way was so slow and that I needed to increase the speed by 100 times. Then I magically found a way to do that.

LK: Magically? What does that mean?

EX: I probably already thought about it many times. I tried many times and it didn’t work. By accident, I was drunk so my brain became open and all these ideas came to me.  It probably opened some gates and I was flowing with ideas.

LK: So tell me about stealing code.

EX: Once we finished our product, eventually we decided to move to the US with my family. We believed to become a global company; especially a global ID company, the U.S. is the best place to do business. But we had a major problem. When people found out that we started in China and looked at my name knowing I’m from there, most people have this impression of Chinese software companies. First, is that we stole code from some other company. The second was, “Oh, you probably built this by yourself but the quality is crappy. You cannot possibly have success in the US where they already have the best technology in the world.” So, we had to persuade people that even though we’re a Chinese company and we coded it ourselves, if we had to use some other code we would license with them. But we made sure no open-source got into our code base.

So we were very careful with our intellectual property, that’s the way we make money. We respect other people’s IP as well. But even though we say this, we still have difficulty persuading other people. One of the incidences that happened was a major company who is one of our biggest customers. They were using Adobe technology and were unsatisfied with it and wanted a good alternative. Finally, they saw FoxIt and said, “Oh, these guys are doing interesting things.” So, we put them on a trial program for half a year just to test it. We had all these tests and had good results that were better than Adobe. They’re very interested in our technology but they are concerned this is a Chinese company. They don’t want to buy something that is ‘stolen.’ They may not say it, but they don’t trust you.

They may ask, “Can I see the source code? I said, “Sure I can give you the source code. But I just can’t send it over to you to look at — you have to come to our Beijing office. So, they sent over this guy who new Adobe source code in and out. We blocked all USB connections and put another person on the other side of his desk so we could see that he doesn’t do anything dishonest. Within two hours, he looked at the structure of our source code and immediately noted it was something new and far new optimized and advanced. We got around the roadblocks the hard way.


  • Lauren Keyson

    Lauren is the Founder and CEO of Keyson Publishing. She is also the Founder and CEO of the not-for-profit Disruptive Technologists, Inc., and founder, writer, and publisher of This latest project incorporates published digital content for the web, newsletters, podcasts, quarterly events in partnership with Microsoft, webinars, Think Tank events & dinners with some of the most disruptive voices in technology today, as well as a large social media network on multiple platforms.

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