You spent hours preparing that Microsoft Word document, only to discover that either the recipient didn’t have the Word software on his computer, or some of the fancy fonts that you used in your Word file, were not installed on his computer. In the former case, the recipient won’t be able to open the Word document at all and in the latter case, though he can open the file, the layout that he will see will be very different from what you prepared.

While one can work around these problems, like the client can download the free programme viewers from Microsoft’s website or install the missing fonts, these hacks will not work in every situation. What if you share a complex computer automated design, CAD, document or Visio Drawing for which no free viewers are available? Don’t expect anyone to spend hundreds of dollars to buy the complete software, just to view your document.

Therefore, the most logical solution is to share documents in Adobe PDF, a universally accepted format. And like Macromedia Flash, most computers are shipped pre-installed with the free Acrobat Reader.

There are three main advantages of using PDF - the document layout is preserved, fonts can be embedded inside the PDF document and most important, a majority of users already have the software required to read PDF files. Your users will see your documents exactly as you intended, with all the fonts, formatting and graphics intact.

So, how do you create PDF files? The most popular answer would be the $500 Adobe Acrobat software but the fact is that you don’t need to spend that kind of money, just for creating PDF files. Here’s a look at various free options, that will let you convert any document to a PDF file, for free.

1. Adobe CreatePDF (www.createpdf.adobe.com) This is for users who need PDF on rare occasions. Adobe has a free online service, where you can upload any document and Adobe will convert that to PDF and send the converted file to your email address as an attachment. All you need is an email account to use this service. The first three conversions are free.

2. PDF Online (www.pdfonline.com) This is another free service that imposes no limit on the number of file conversions. They support practically every document and image format. Once you upload the raw file to their servers, the converted PDF will be available in your email inbox.

3. CutePDF Writer (www.cutepdf.com) If you dislike online services, this free software is for you. CutePDF is installed as a PDF printer on your machine. To convert a document to PDF, just print it using the normal process but choose the CutePDF printer instead of the regular printer.

4. PrimoPDF (www.primopdf.com) Like CutePDF, PrimoPDF is also a popular standalone option for creating PDF files. I like this more than CutePDF, as it doesn’t require me to download a separate GhostScript installer.

Corel WordPerfect and Sun StarOffice have native PDF printing capabilities. Microsoft Office 2003 doesn’t support PDF and following a spat with Adobe, it’s highly unlikely to see PDF in the upcoming Office 2007.

Adobe Acrobat gives you more features like comments, stamps, security options but again, if you are an average to medium user, the above list of free PDF software should suffice.