Here's how to unlock the secrets of PDFs

March 30, 2009
Once in a while, I have to write about a technology that everybody uses, but few people can name. This obviously introduces a certain complexity into the writing process. An example is the PDF. If you use the Web, you've almost certainly run into them. If you use e-mail, you've probably gotten them as attachments. You may know them as "PDFs", after the file extension they have: .pdf.

They've been around for years, and there are probably hundreds of millions of PDFs floating around cyberspace. You may even create them yourself. But they're still a mystery to many business folk, even those who routinely receive them and read them.

"PDF" is a document format once known as "Adobe Acrobat." PDFs are not original documents themselves, but rather more secure and compressed versions of other documents. They're made from other files, such as those from Microsoft Word, Excel or PowerPoint. Unlike files from those applications, PDFs can be locked against changes. They're smaller, taking up less room as an e-mail attachment or on a flash drive. Printing companies love them, because PDFs can contain precise color information in a form that's easy to read. They also don't corrupt as easily.

They're forward-compatible, so a PDF made in 1995 can still be read today. That was the PDF's original market position, as matter of fact—as an archival format. But when the Web came along, PDFs suddenly became popular as a file-transfer format. You could create a PDF from any one of dozens of programs, ranging from spreadsheets to page-layout applications, and view them all with one "reader." And eventually the reader was "plugged in" to the Web browser, making reading PDFs from Web sites even easier.

Given the Balkanization of the technical world in the late 1990s and early 2000s, having a single format to trade and view documents among them was a godsend. In fact, the term "PDF" stands for "portable document format." Adobe's PDF format once had a dozen competitors; today, there is only-Acrobat's format, the ubiquitous PDF.

Once, it was a bit of a pain creating a PDF, and you needed products from Adobe to do it. But gradually, Adobe allowed others to enter the field, and today you can get free software to create PDFs from almost any application on your computer. These free applications act like printers, except they don't print to a physical device, but instead create a PDF file.

You can get one from PrimoPDF (www.primopdf.com), CutePDF (www. cutepdf.com) or doPDF (www.dopdf. com), among many others. Alternatively, you can use an online service that eliminates having to load anything onto your computer. You upload your standard file, and it sends back a finished PDF. Again, there are several of these services. Adobe itself offers one (www.adobe.com). PDF Converter (www.freepdfconvert.com) is another one.

Creating a PDF is simple. But editing one can be a challenge. PDFs weren't designed to be editable. You don't work in PDFs as you can in Word documents, for example. It's possible to edit a PDF directly, but it's clumsy. Far better would be to convert back from a PDF into the original file format. But that, too, proves somewhat difficult.

When a PDF is spawned, it's actually being interpreted into another form entirely from the parent document, so many of the original features of the parent document are lost. When you convert from Microsoft Word to PDF, for example, you normally lose tables, columns, and headers and footers. All of these are replicated to visually appear like their parental counterparts, but they're not the same. So when you reverse the process and once again get a Word document from a PDF, those things have to be simulated. Table lines are graphics, for instance.

Still, there are times when the original document isn't available for editing, but the PDF is, and it has to be deconstructed. There are software packages for doing that, but, unlike the creators, these usually have price tags. PDF Export Kit costs about $50 (www.pdfkit.com). PDF Converter is around $200 (www.nuance.com/pdfconverter). Some are actually free, although they may not work quite as well as the purchased ones. Hello PDF is a downloadable package you can use for free (www.hellopdf.com).

Possibly the most famous PDF converter is Zamzar (www.zamzar.com). In fact, Zamzar converts almost anything to anything else, not just PDFs. Its site lists dozens of formats. And it's free for smaller, occasional files. If you're converting in bulk, you'll have to sign up for a subscription. You just upload your file, pick how you want it converted, and wait for Zamzar to let you know it's done so you can download it. Freebies don't get priority, so it may take a while. But if you have only one or two to do, it's a great bargain.


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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