Just as computers are making it easy and affordable for nearly anyone to produce great-looking documents, it's also getting easier and cheaper to send electronic mail. But most electronic messages are just words that flash across a screen, lacking the fonts, formatting and graphics that help make text readable.

Thus document dispatchers often face Hobson's choice. Do you send paper or faxed documents with graphics or do you take the faster, more environmentally correct -- and often cheaper -- route of sending E-mail?

For most messages, regular E-mail is fine, but sometimes your message depends on the imagery of type and graphics.

A new breed of software makes it possible to have it both ways. Replica ($99 from Farallon Corp., 1-800-998-7760) Acrobat ($195 from Adobe Systems, 1-800-833-6687) and Common Ground ($189 from No Hands Software, 1-800-598-3821) allows any Windows or Mac program to create a document that can be viewed or printed by others even if they don't have the program that was used to create the document in the first place.

Adobe offers both a Windows and Macintosh version of Acrobat and has announced plans to support DOS, OS/2 and Unix. So a document created on a Mac can be viewed or printed on a machine running Windows.

Farallon is shipping a Windows version and plans a compatible Mac product later this year; vice versa for No Hands, which is shipping a Mac version of Common Ground and developing a compatible Windows product.

All three products come with printer drivers that, once installed, allow you to use any program's print command to create an electronic document in the same way you create a printed version. Instead of coming out on paper, the image becomes a file that can be read or printed using a special viewer program.

Replica and Common Ground come with viewer programs that users can give away to others. Acrobat owners pay a royalty for each viewer program they distribute. A single copy of the viewer costs $50, making Acrobat prohibitively expensive for those who want to distribute documents to the public.

Acrobat's strong suit is its close ties to Adobe's PostScript page description language, which is used by graphic professionals. Users who want to create Acrobat files from documents that contain Encapsulated PostScript (EPS) artwork need to purchase a special program, called Distiller, at a suggested retail price of $695.

I recently used Replica to publish the electronic version of a poster about Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old girl who was abducted Oct. 1 from her home in Petaluma, Calif. Hundreds of volunteers have been distributing posters with pictures of Polly and her suspected abductor but, because kidnappers sometimes move their victims, it was necessary to get this poster out to people throughout the nation and world. By creating a Replica version of the poster, anyone with Windows could display or print out a copy that's just as good as the original.

After obtaining graphic files with pictures of Polly and her suspected abductor, I used Microsoft Publisher to create a poster and used Publisher's print command to create a 200K Replica file. That file was posted on the Farallon forum on CompuServe (GO FARAPC) and sent via modem and disk to copy shops and volunteers around the country.

If you're sending a Replica file to someone who doesn't have a viewer, you can embed that viewer as part of the file. With that option set, Replica creates an executable file that installs a copy of the Replica viewer on the recipient's hard disk. The viewer adds 243K to the size of the file but it only has to be sent once.

If the person has a viewer, you can simply create a Replica data file. A file with just a single page of text is only about 4K.

The larger the file, the longer it takes to transmit via modem, which is important since many on-line services charge by the minute.

Farallon has a unique distribution method for Replica. If you subscribe to CompuServe, America Online, GEnie or Bix you can download a copy for no cost other than connect charges. Internet users can send E-mail to farallonfarallon.com for downloading instructions.

What you'll get is a full working copy of the program that gives you unlimited viewing rights. After five uses, it asks you for a serial number, which you can obtain over the phone for $99.Readers' comments are welcomed. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, P.O. Box 620477, Woodside, Calif. 94062, or contact him on the Internet at magid@latimes.com.