Alternatives For Creating An Editable PDF Form

by on October 28, 2007

Q: I would like to create a form in PDF that could be opened by Acrobat Reader, filled and saved in the computer. What software would you recommend other than any Adobe software? Could you please tell me the cheapest one?

A: Adobe has retained tight control over what it calls LiveCycle Reader Extensions (Wikipedia has a related article here). As I understand it, LiveCycle Reader Extensions are what allow for the creation of a PDF form that can be filled-in and saved in Adobe Reader. As far as I can tell, none of the programs in this Wikipedia list of PDF software are able to create a PDF form that is directly savable in Adobe Reader.

I use the word directly because Adobe Reader does provide two indirect ways of saving a form. Both of these methods have limitations, however. The first method is to save the form as a PostScript file (.ps file extension). Adobe Reader users can accomplish this after completing their entry of data into your form by going File -> Print -> Print to file. This should preserve the layout of the form and all of the data. The use of this technique is ideal for archiving documents. The downside of the PostScript method is that data cannot be easily extracted or searched. For example, you cannot easily copy text from the PostScript file and paste it into a spreadsheet. Mac OS X and most popular Linux distributions now support the viewing of PostScript files by default. If you are using Microsoft Windows and cannot view PostScript files, use a website like softpedia.com to search for a PostScript viewer of your choice.

Another limitation is that users of Adobe Reader who do not have a printer will probably not be able to use the PostScript method without installing a virtual printer first. Incidentally, some virtual printers are able to save documents as PDFs. None of the free virtual printers for Microsoft Windows that I have tried are able to print a PDF form that will allow for “copy and paste” functions. Some of the virtual printers that cost money are able to print PDF forms that allow copy and paste. But, I assume that you need a free solution for the recipients of your form.

Using Adobe Reader 8.x, it is possible to enter data into a form and then go File -> Save as Text. This results in a text file (.txt file extension) that preserves data but not formatting. In other words, the data could be very difficult for you to interpret. This method does not preserve data entered into the form if used in Adobe Reader 7.x. This leads me to believe that the Save as Text method will only work in Adobe Reader 8.x or newer. Even with the newest version of Adobe Reader, this method may or may not work for all forms.

Another alternative is to create a PDF form on your computer using a free program like OpenOffice Writer, then send the form to another company for conversion into a document that can be saved by Adobe Reader users. FormRouter is one such company that I was able to find during my research. Finally, you might want to consider using Microsoft Word or OpenOffice to create forms in the .doc file format. While some of your users may encounter layout problems using forms in the .doc format, it is a more cost-effective solution than PDF in many ways.

If none of these options are satisfactory, you must use Acrobat 8 Professional or better to create forms that can be saved by users of Adobe Reader.