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What to Do When Your Web Browser Won’t Display PDFs

Sometimes you click a link in your Web browser and instead of it taking you to another Web page, the link goes to a PDF instead. For most of us, this is no problem: modern browsers have had the capability to display PDFs directly for a while now, and the result of clicking a link to a PDF usually results in the PDF appearing inside the browser window. For details about how this works in Safari and Google Chrome, see Steve McCabe’s “Wrangling PDFs in 2012’s Web Browsers” (1 June 2012), along with Agen Schmitz’s TidBITS Watchlist entry for “Firefox 19” (19 February 2013).

Nonetheless, whenever we publish a link to a PDF in one of our articles or Take Control books, it’s not uncommon to hear from frustrated readers who tell us that all they see when they click the link is a blank black or white page. Fortunately, the solution is simple and usually requires nothing more than removing a couple of files from your Mac.

In most cases, the cause of the problem is one or two older browser plug-ins from Adobe that don’t play nicely with today’s browsers: AdobePDFViewer.plugin and AdobePDFViewerNPAPI.plugin. These plug-ins are installed by Adobe Reader or by Adobe Acrobat Pro and are put in place to enable browsers to display PDFs using Adobe’s own PDF-displaying code. However, versions of Reader or Acrobat prior to version 10.1.3 provide plug-ins that are incompatible with some browsers; in particular, Safari 5.1 or later and recent versions of Firefox end up showing black pages (Safari) or white pages (Firefox) when the incompatible Adobe plug-ins are installed.

The fix is easy: quit your browser (this step is important!) and remove the plug-ins. You can usually find them in the Internet Plug-ins folder inside the main Library folder on your Mac — no, not the hidden Library in your Home directory (also known as ~/Library/Internet Plug-Ins) but the one at the top level of your hard disk (/Library/Internet Plug-Ins).

Open that folder, look for any files that begins with the name AdobePDFViewer, and drag them out of the /Internet Plug-ins folder (put them on the Desktop temporarily if you don’t want to trash them immediately). You will be asked to confirm the move by entering an administrator name and password.

Sometimes you won’t find the incompatible plug-ins in your main Library folder. If so, look in the Library folder in your Home directory instead. This folder is hidden by default in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion and 10.8 Mountain Lion (see “Dealing with Lion’s Hidden Library,” 20 July 2011). To reach it in the Finder, hold down the Option key, choose Go > Library, and then navigate to the Internet Plug-Ins folder. If you see the AdobePDFViewer plug-ins in that folder, drag them out; again, you may be asked to confirm the move by entering an administrator name and password.

Once the plug-ins are removed, launch your Web browser and try again — you should now be able to view PDFs right in the browser window using the browser’s native PDF support. (And if you don’t want to view PDFs in your browser at all, read “Wrangling PDFs in 2012’s Web Browsers” for instructions on disabling the functionality.)

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