In the early days of the Web, there were even fewer data formatting and presentation standards than there are today. Consequently, a Web page could look different depending upon the user's Web browser, operating system, screen resolution, image display limitations (or even no images at all, such as in the text-only browser Lynx). Content publishers struggled to figure out a way to format documents so that their appearance would be consistent for all people viewing those documents. This was especially problematic for businesses and other organizations that, for legal and commercial reasons, must have complete assurance that customers are seeing these documents exactly as intended — particularly the ones that constitute agreements, and need to be printed and signed.
Several document formats were developed, but one eventually emerged as the winner: Portable Document Format (PDF), which was conceived by Adobe Systems in 1993. Every PDF file is a self-contained document that contains all of the text, images, and vector graphics, as well as positioning, indexing, text font, and other information that specify the exact appearance of all elements in the document. Adobe also developed a browser plugin, Adobe Reader, which made it possible for a browser to display a PDF file, just as well as a dedicated PDF desktop application would.
Initially, PDF documents were created by organizations that had the budgets for purchasing Adobe Acrobat, which is an application for creating such documents, and at the time was the only one available. (For most of its history, PDF has been a proprietary format, and was only released as an open standard by Adobe in July 2008, and later made an ISO standard.) But as more people began using the Internet for publishing and emailing documents, and the PDF standard became ubiquitous, the need arose for individuals to be able to create PDF files themselves.
By the way, people are sometimes confused by the two Adobe products. So, just to clarify, Reader is not a writer: it cannot be used to create new PDF documents, which is the purpose of Adobe Acrobat. Yet that is not to say that Adobe Reader is lacking in capabilities; it can display, search, digitally sign, and print PDF documents.
In this article, I will consider some of the better free or low-cost tools that you can use for generating your own PDF documents, without having to purchase Acrobat.
PDF by Printing
When most people think about the phrase "printing a document" from an application, such as Microsoft Word, they immediately think of paper being fed through a printer, and emerging as a stack of pages marked with ink. They assume that Word is sending the data directly to the printer itself. Actually, it is a multi-step process, and the first of the two major steps is that Word is sending the data to a printer-specific device driver, which is a program on the PC that knows how to receive data like that and send it to the printer properly. The device driver sees that information before it has even come close to the printer itself.
This multi-step process opens up some terrific possibilities for redirecting the output of an application to a different destination — one never intended when that application was first created. Programmers can develop a device driver that isn't even associated with a physical device (such as a printer), but instead does something completely different with the data it receives, such as writing it to a specially formatted file on the hard drive. That is precisely how PDF files can be easily created from word processing programs such as Word. In fact, anyone who has learned how to generate PDF documents, usually learns this method first.
Microsoft Word does not have a built-in way of taking a document in Word format and saving it as a PDF file. Fortunately, several programs have been created over the years, each of which creates a virtual PDF printer in Windows's list of available printers. As soon as you have installed one of these utility programs, you will see the new entry in the printers that Word can send the document to. When you "print" a document to that PDF printer, Word prompts you for a file name and location, and then the virtual printer generates a PDF file in that location.
CutePDF Writer is a free and lean PDF creation program, not infected with any advertising, spyware, or nag pop-ups. It also does not write any watermark onto PDF documents created. It requires you to download and install a separate PostScript print language interpreter, such as Ghostscript, but those are free as well. Granted, like all of the freeware PDF utilities mentioned here, CutePDF Writer does not offer all of the configuration options, font choices, and security features found in Adobe Acrobat. But most computer users don't need any of that, and simply want to create a straightforward PDF file from an existing Word document.
doPDF is quite similar to CutePDF Writer in terms of capabilities and lack of fee, bloat, and annoying nag dialog boxes. Even better, it does not require Ghostscript or any other third-party programs. It also does not require Microsoft .NET, unlike some other PDF converter programs — thus significantly reducing the size of the installation program and the amount of disk space consumed. You can set the resolution to anything from 72 dpi (dots per inch) to 2400 dpi. You can set a default page size (including Letter, Legal, A4, A5, A6) or define your own custom page size. Users whose primary language is not English can choose a different language to be used for the user interface, from a list of 20 languages.
If basic PDF generation is not sufficient for your needs, and you are willing to pay some money for extra features, then consider deskPDF, which is shareware, with a $30 license. It includes security features designed to prevent unauthorized copying, editing, or printing. It supports watermarks, predefined profiles, PDF quality levels, international page sizes, international graphics software requirements, and one-click emailing of the PDF document. It has a table of contents capability, and can handle Word hyperlinks. As of this writing, the company's home page is having technical problems, but the setup program can be downloaded directly.
These are just a few of the programs out there that take the approach of using a virtual PDF printer for making it easy to create PDF files from existing documents in other formats. But what if, for whatever reason, you wish to create a PDF document from scratch?
PDF by Editing
PDFedit is a free and open-source editor for modifying PDF documents, without sending them to a virtual printer. This program is able to analyze a PDF document and decompose it into its native hierarchical structure, allowing the user to modify any aspect of it. The program's documentation does not appear to explicitly state that one can create a PDF document from scratch, but it seems to logically follow from the program's capabilities.
Modifications can be made using its built-in graphical user interface (GUI) or on the command line, for users who prefer that over the GUI or who wish to place PDFedit commands into some sort of script to be run later programmatically.
Unfortunately, PDFedit is designed for use on the Linux operating system; prebuilt packages are only available for four different Linux distributions (Debian, Gentoo, NetBSD, and openSUSE). Yet as an open-source product, its source code can be downloaded and compiled into an executable by anyone who feels up to the challenge of, on a Windows machine, compiling C++ code requiring four different libraries. It is unfortunate that the developers who created PDFedit do not appear to have any interest in supporting Windows.
For anyone who is using Linux on one of their computers and would like to try PDFedit, be sure to check out the article on HowtoForge, titled "PDFedit On Ubuntu Feisty Fawn". It explains the process, step-by-step, and is loaded with screenshots.
If any reader is aware of a free or shareware PDF editing application that runs on Windows without having to be compiled from source code, please let us know.