I clearly recall the day years ago when I filled out my first neat-o PDF form in Reader — it was an "application for vendor status" form I downloaded from a new client's web site — and it dawned on me that there was no way I could save my entries in the PDF. No Save command. No Save As command. Weird! I had never seen a program without a Save command, I thought it was impossible.
Re-reading the instructions on the client's web site, I learned I was supposed to print the PDF and mail or fax it back to them. I could fill out the fields in Reader if I felt like it — if I wanted to be neat about it, and my typewriter was at the shop, I suppose — but I'd still have to print it out if I wanted a record of what I was filling out and to send it to them.
Soon afterwards I purchased the full Acrobat program, and when I learned that Acrobat does let you save form data, I opened all PDFs in it from then on, and barely opened Reader again.
That works great for the forms I fill out, and for the forms you fill out (you = all you graphic designers who have Acrobat that are reading this), but what about the forms we're designing for our clients to send to their customers? Their customers who only have Adobe Reader, like 95% of the PDF-receiving universe?
The Official Solutions
Adobe says if our clients want to receive their customers' PDF form data electronically, we need to include a Submit button in the form with Acrobat's (or Windows-only Adobe Designer's) form tools. You can set the Submit button to send the data (it can't send the completed PDF) as an FDF or XML file to an e-mail address or to a web database, and Acrobat has tools that lets you populate the same PDF with that data, or compile many of these data files into a spreadsheet. Look in Acrobat Pro's Advanced > Forms submenu for the "import data" commands.
Still, that doesn't help the recipient of the PDF; only the person or company that sent it out.
So another solution is to have your client invest in a big-business solution called Adobe LiveCycle Reader Extensions: http://www.adobe.com/products/server/readerextensions/index.html
There's no price information on that page, no "how to buy" instructions, just a Contact a Sales Rep link. I have no idea why they're so close-mouthed about the cost, but considering the web page bristles with ominous phrases like "document-based processes" and "enterprise solution" leads me to believe it's not something you could pick up from CompUSA.
But anyway, assuming you've hooked a Mrs. Gotrocks client, with these extensions installed on their server you can create PDFs that in effect "unlock" the recipient's copy of Adobe Reader, for those PDFs only. And one of the unlocked features is a Save command!
You can see it for yourself — try downloading a tax form from the IRS home page (http://www.irs.gov) and opening it up in Reader — check out the Save/Save As commands that magically appear in Reader's File menu. Apparently the IRS is a LiveCycle Reader Extensions customer. (I don't know for sure, though … but I think this is the only way it can be done.) And they're not the only one — I've come across a few other PDF forms downloaded from big company sites that also invoke a Save command in Adobe Reader 7.
I also found a company, FormRouter, that basically leases its server's LiveCycle Reader Extensions for as little as $125/form page: http://www.formrouter.com/pdf/readerextensions.htm
Unofficial Mac OS X Solution
Here's something interesting I recently discovered — a way to save form data in a PDF, formatting intact, for free! I have a feeling I'm the last person to figure this out, but since I haven't seen it written up anywhere, I'll put it out there.
Open a regular PDF form (not an Extensioned one from the IRS in other words) in Reader and fill out a few of the fields. Choose File > Print, but don't actually print the thing.
Instead, click the PDF button at the bottom left of the Print dialog box. You're familiar with this button, it's an OS X feature. (I'm not sure if it's new in Tiger or not, though. I don't have Panther installed anymore and I can't remember.) The OS X PDF button is actually a dropdown menu with lots of choices. Forget being a smarty pants and choosing the first option, Save as PDF, because Reader's on to your game and won't let you. Ditto for the Preview (open in Preview) button to the right.
Instead, choose the next option in the OS X PDF menu, Save PDF as Postscript. Reader *will* let you create a PostScript file of this PDF, and your form data is included within it.
How does that help someone who doesn't have Acrobat (and thus, doesn't have Distiller)? If they have OS X, they have Preview, and Preview converts Postscript files to PDF.
Open the Postscript file of your form in Preview, and the PDF is magically resurrected, including your form data. Save this document anywhere you'd like. The PDF can be opened with Reader just like any other PDF.
The question is, will your customers be willing to jump through these hoops to save their form data in the PDF? Not without some hand-holding … clear instructions in the PDF, or perhaps an Applescript.
Third-Party Windows Solution
Alas, Windows lacks the PDF underpinnings of OS X, so there's no handy Save PDF as Postscript command to be found.
But I did find a few Windows-only software programs for under $50 that let you open a PDF form, enter data into its fields, and then save the data with the PDF.
CutePDF Form Filler ($29.95 US)
Aloaha PDF Saver ($48.75 US)
I briefly tested the evaluation copy of CutePDF and was able to save my data as advertised. Just to make sure it was a "real" PDF, I opened the saved PDF in Reader, and it opened fine, all my data intact, and the form fields were still fields. I placed it in InDesign CS2 and it came in fine, again with the data in the fields.
As always (well since version 4), I'm hopeful that in the next version of Reader and Acrobat, these workarounds will be unnecessary. I think Adobe's starting to crack, actually — after all, Acrobat Pro 7 finally allowed us to unlock Reader's ability to save Comments in a PDF. Let's keep that ball rolling! If Adobe can't bring themselves to release a Reader 8 that has a Save command, how about if Acrobat Pro 8 allowed us non-Gotrock-types to unlock Reader's ability to save form data?
Make your wishes known on Adobe's Feature Request form (of course, it's not a PDF form): http://www.adobe.com/support/feature.html