How printers and other hardware present colors will vary from one device to another. Each device independently defines the colors used. Even if two printers process a shade of green using the same CMYK color values—Cyan78, Magenta0, Yellow71—the appearance of the two printed documents still might not match.
The lack of a standard for managing color became a problem with the complex technology that started to appear in the mid-20th century. A wide variety of input devices were introduced by multiple manufacturers, including scanners, printers, digital cameras and mobile devices. These devices needed to communicate with an equally wide variety of output devices, such as monitors, presses, laser, ink jet, and dot-matrix printers, and copy machines. This created a vast number of possible color conversions from one hardware device to another.
In response, color management was introduced, using color profiles. The International Color Consortium (ICC) developed a color specification in 1993 that works across all operating systems and software packages, and applies regardless of the hardware involved. All color profiles are based on this ICC specification. A color profile is a table that specifies standard values for a range of colors, and that works as a translation matrix between devices. Any two devices involved in a transaction that requires content to be printed or displayed will share a color profile and convert their internal color values to match the standard provided in that profile.
A variety of color profiles have been defined, presented in the form of .icc files. Some of these profiles are specific to hardware devices, and define what a camera can detect, or a printer print, or a monitor display. Others are based on software and thus can be used across many different kinds of devices. For example, USWebCoatedSWOP is a standard CMYK color profile, commonly used with Adobe Systems software products like PhotoShop and InDesign. The standard RGB color space, sRGB, was developed by Microsoft and Hewlett Packard to describe colors available on most monitors and other displays. This color space is also commonly used for web graphics. And the Adobe RGB color profile (AdobeRGB1998.icc) was designed by Adobe Systems to hold all of the colors that are likely to be available on any color CMYK printer. It is considerably larger than standard RGB.
A single PDF document can support a wide variety of elements using different color models. Often a PDF file is produced and saved with elements in the DeviceRGB, DeviceCMYK and DeviceGray spaces that have an associated ICC profile. An element in a PDF that has an associated profile is considered calibrated. Elements that do not have embedded profiles are considered un-calibrated. PDF processing software will often assign default profiles (referred to as working spaces) to un-calibrated elements. Graphics files, however, such as PNG, TIF, or JPG, can only hold a single color profile.