Hybrid PDF/ODF documents are easy to create with open source tools

While web services such as Google Docs, Dropbox and SkyDrive become more and more popular everyday, many companies still share documents almost exclusively by email attachments, using the 20 years old PDF format. Do you know how to create a hybrid editable PDF file to allow your peers to modify it if needed?

Whether you are ready for it or not, the time of printed documents and files attached to emails is coming to an end. I'm ready for it. As a matter of fact, I'm in the middle of a crusade at the office to have all our shared documents moved to a cloud service (Google Docs or Dropbox) where all those who need to consult or edit them can have access from virtually anywhere in the world.

However, certain documents still have to be shared in digital format (quotations, certificates, applications, etc.) with digital signatures, and the de facto format for such documents is PDF. A link for a publicly shared document won't work in many of these cases.

The Portable Document Format was developed by Adobe about twenty years ago as a mean to allow the encapsulation of a complete description of a fixed-layout flat document, including the text, fonts, graphics, and other information needed to display it. Portability was the main goal, but the fact that PDFs were not easily editable also collaborated to its popularity and fast adoption.

If you need to edit a PDF file, then the "default" option would be Adobe Acrobat, which retails at the time of this writing for $449, a price that puts it out of reach for a lot of folks out there and even for some start-up businesses. Luckily, the PDF standard itself is free and many open source tools are available to help. Two of the most popular open source text processors, LibreOffice and OpenOffice, allow you to create hybrid PDF documents, which is basically a PDF document that has embedded as metadata the document that was used to generate it.

Here are the two steps to create a fully editable PDF/ODF using OpenOffice:

1- Click on File -> Export PDF

Export as PDF option in OpenOffice

2- In the PDF Options window, check the Embed this document inside the PDF option

PDF Options window in OpenOffice

To open edit this PDF document later on to edit it, you need to install a plugin called PDF Import for Apache OpenOffice, or Oracle PDF Import Extension if you're using an older version of OpenOffice.

Adding the plugin is also very easy, just download it and click on Tools -> Extension Manager to install it.

Accessing the Extension Manager in OpenOffice

Now you can start distributing PDFs that are editable by your collaborators!