Confessions of a PDF Hater

There’s a lot of discussion about the ongoing spat between Microsoft and Adobe over whether Microsoft will be able to install PDF/Acrobat support in its next version of Office. This should be as straightforward as PDF support in OpenOffice — where you can choose to save (well, print, technically speaking) a file as an Acrobat PDF. But it’s not. Allowing a niche, free, office suite like OpenOffice to add this for free is one thing, but for the market giant Microsoft — who are preparing a PDF rival, XPS — to do it is another. So as things stand at the moment, Office users will be abe to have PDF support, but not out-of-the-box: They’ll have to install it as a download plug-in. Not too arduous, but as comments on the blog of Brian Jones, Microsoft’s Program Manager, suggest, a lot of folk won’t do that.

Everyone’s talking about this issue, blaming Microsoft, blaming Adobe, but no one seems to be asking a question I’ve been mulling for years: Why are Adobe Acrobat files so hard to use, and the Adobe programs to make and maniuplate them so darned user unfriendly? I’ve been using Acrobat reader and Acrobat for years, and each version I hope is going to be a little more intuitive and easier to understand. And yet every time I try to do something a little bit different or more complicated than simply saving a file or extracting a line of text I run into problems.

I’ve found no straightforward, wizard-type way to tweak a saved file to balance reduced file size with reduced quality of images. This means that I — and I’m sure lots of other folk, including a friend of mine who yesterday received a PDF file from a major international organisation that was 7 MB in size, had Chinese characters that appeared as gibberish on her screen — can’t easily use what should be the most powerful features in what should be a great program.

And don’t get me started on the naff way that the Adobe Reader includes a promo for the Yahoo! Toolbar — how low do you have to stoop? — and, next to it, a helpful search box. How many people have entered text in that box thinking it’s to search the active PDF document, only to find that it’s actually a Yahoo! search box?


Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that it looks remarkably similar to the Adobe “find” box that appears if you hit Control+f:


It’s telling that most of the best PDF tools are not actually Adobe’s at all, but simple PDF makers that bypass the whole Acrobat maker process. (My list of these programs is here, although it needs some updating. Here’s a free PDFCreator which will allow you to print to PDF from any Windows program.)

Sure, PDFs are great for the security measures they build in, and they have definitely changed the way people exchange and collaborate over documents. But usability has not improved. So if Microsoft or anyone can come up with a better format that’s easier to work with, I’m all for it.

Adobe Opens The Door A Crack?

Wired reports that the upcoming version of Adobe Acrobat Reader — the free version of its authoring software that lets folk read the resulting Portable Document Format, or PDF files — will let “users make comments or editing changes for the first time, if the original creator of the document uses Acrobat 7.0 and authorizes it”.

A more carefully worded version is on Adobe’s website that says that “when enabled by Acrobat 7.0 Professional authors, you can now leverage robust commenting tools and actively participate in document reviews.” What “leverage” means here is anyone’s guess, but it sounds like a weasel word that doesn’t quite mean “access” or “use”. (Interestingly, a longer piece on the PDF Zone makes no mention of this feature.)

Still, if true this is a great idea and long overdue, and while Adobe claims, Wired says, that it’s part of a “larger goal to turn Acrobat into a flexible platform for assembling documents from beginning to end, making it a more useful collaboration tool among workgroups”, it probably has as much to do with the burgeoning industry of third party tools that let folk make and alter Adobe documents quickly and more cheaply than the Adobe Acrobat authoring program allows ($450 for the Pro version, $300 for the Standard edition). If you want everyone in an organisation to use PDF, you can’t expect them all to shell out several hundred bucks just to add a few comments to a document as it passes their desk. (Check out my list of alternative Acrobat software.)

I’m a fan of Acrobat but hate the price, and also the interface, particularly the menus, which look like they’ve been put together by Martians. Adobe is apparently addressing that too, collapsing menu structures, according to TechSpot, “so you don’t have to go out through lots of different hierarchies”. Hear, hear.

I can well understand that Acrobat is great for pushing documents through organisations where lots of people need to throw in their tuppennies’ worth. But I guess for most people what is really needed is a three stage process: a good, clean, intuitive editing environment, a good, clean intuitive commenting environment, and a straightforward document lock-down, where the final document looks the same on all computers, all printers but can, where relevant, be easily accessed and the contents copied and pasted elsewhere. To be honest, I’ve never found any of these stages particularly easy with Acrobat. Is it just me?

Acrobat Converting Software

Here’s a list of services and products that create documents in Adobe’s  “Portable Document Format” (PDF). (Much of this is drawn from Merle’s article on WebProNews)

Software that creates PDF files from other files

  • PDFMoto: A Web publishing system that converts documents you create in any Windows application into PDF. They offer several different versions, so pricing varies, but they do offer a free version that is limited to 50 documents.
  • PDF995 : Free software that allows you to create PDF documents as easily as hitting the “print” key from within any application. The free version has an advertising splash page that comes up everytime you run the program but you can purchase “keys” for $9.95 each to remove them if they bother you.
  • Txt2PDF: a Perl 5 program that converts your old text docs to PDF format. Runs on any platform that supports Perl. From $40.
  • Gymnast: freeware text to PDF creator for Windows.
  • CutePDF Printer: totally free. This software has no annoying ads or banners. Choose print from within any application to create a PDF instantly.
  • Win2PDF: Windows NT, Win 2000 or XP. From $35 to $70.
  • PDFCreator: an open-source project on, installing as a printer driver. (Thanks cmswire for this one, and pointing to the original story.)
  • pdfFactory: quite advanced PDF creator, including multiple documents into one PDF, preview and font embedding.

Suites that include PDF conversion

The following office suites include PDF printing as part of the standard package:

Other products, such as PaperPort ($100 to $200) and PaperMaster Pro ($200) will allow you to scan or convert a file to PDF as part of the program’s overall document management system.

Online Services

  • Adobe Look in the left hand column for the button that says “create PDF online.” You can create up to five documents free; after that you’ll need to pay $10 a month or $100 per year for unlimited usage.
  • GoBlc Free online conversion service that will email you the results.

Software to convert PDF files

Software that turns an Acrobat file into something you can edit in another program:

  • PDFConverter: converts PDF to Microsoft Word (this won’t work with scanned image PDF files) ($50)
  • OmniPage: converts any kind of PDF file into an Office document; will also scan or convert an existing document into PDF ($600).

News: The Free Version Of Office Is Out

 The free, open source Office suite, OpenOffice, is now officially into version 1.1, including enhancements such as “revolutionary” XML file format, one-click PDF (Adobe Acrobat) export and Macromedia Flash export for presentations and drawings, according to The Register.
There is is enhanced MS Office file compatibility, accessibility support and a faster load times. Supported languages include English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese (simplified & traditional), Korean and Japanese. Of course, it’s available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Solaris.

Software: Acrobatics on the Cheap

FinePrint, who do an excellent printing program that prints multiple pages on one sheet and saves paper, also do some great software for generating Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files (those documents that look the same whatever computer you view them on, or whatever printer you print them off). It’s a cheaper alternative to buying Acrobat itself, and as someone who spent much of the afternoon having to reinstall his copy of Acrobat, I have a feeling pdfFactory may be a better bet.

Anyway, the good news is that in its August 5, 2003 edition, PC Magazine named FinePrint Software’s pdfFactory Pro as its Editor’s Choice from the twelve applications it reviewed for its “PDFing Cheap”. Crack open the champagne.