Saving documents as PDFs has become trivially easy. A huge number of PDF creator apps have emerged, most of them free, and almost all of them quite simple to use. Programs like Word 2007 and OpenOffice.org have “save as PDF” built in (you need an add-on from Microsoft to do this in Word 2007, but it’s part of the normal interface once you install the add-on). Adobe’s Acrobat.com lets you save to PDF from their word processor, Buzzword, and includes a PDF converter that will transform any document you upload to PDF.
What if you want to go the other way, though? That is, what if you want to get the text back out of a PDF so you can edit it in your normal word processor? This is quite a bit harder than creating a PDF — strange things happen to the original text when you create a PDF that make it quite difficult to pull the text and, especially, the formatting out.
Enter PDFtoWord, a free web-based service that has just begun offering its services publicly. PDFtoWord is simple — you select a PDF file on your harddrive, select whether you want the output to be a Word (.doc) file or a Rich Text Format (.rtf) file, enter your email address, and click “convert”. Within an hour or so (like I said, this kind of conversion is difficult!), PDFtoWord emails you the output of the process — a very nicely formatted and ready-to-edit word processor file.
I tried it with a copy of my e-book for students, Don’t Be Stupid, a complexly formatted document of about 80 pages, laid out into a dozen chapters and a few appendices. PDFtoWord preserved the pagination, the chapter breaks, the text formatting (though not the styles used), and every line of white space — the document I got back looked remarkably similar to the document I’d sent, far exceeding my expectations. The missing elements are things I couldn’t imagine there being a way to preserve, like the styles — I don’t know how the program could guess that all large bold text aligned right should be “Heading 3″.
So what I’m saying is that as a free service, PDFtoWord performs admirably — even better than some paid programs I’ve tried. PDFtoWord is offered by NitroPDF, which makes several other free, Web-based PDF utilities for creating and even editing PDFs, in addition to their desktop-based paid program NItroPDF Professional, which aims to be a sort of “Acrobat Lite” for creating, manipulating, editing, and combining PDF files.
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