PDF In-Depth

Adobe says "No" to XFA support in Adobe Reader Mobile

June 24, 2014

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I don't have hard figures, but one often-discussed application of mobile devices has been the prospect of field agents and others having the ability to collect, store and submit form information on their phones or tablets.

PDF has long been a key technology when it comes to forms. For one, PDF can be used to guarantee visual fidelity with paper forms -- and consequently, compliance with any formatting requirements the hard copy form was required to meet. Another key benefit of individual PDF e-forms is that they can store form data.

In a lot of ways, PDF seems tailor-made for mobile forms. The aforementioned properties mean that they can be filled and stored offline, and form data can then be uploaded when the field agent (or whoever) is within range of an appropriate data connection.

PDF is perhaps so well-suited to use with forms that it actually has two -- count them -- two parallel forms technologies (Acroforms and XFA). The more modern (and fancier) of the two serves as the underlying structure of dynamic forms created in Adobe's LiveCycle Designer. XML Forms Architecture, more generally known as XFA, allows designers to create forms that dynamically change in response to particular inputs. For example, forms might grow or shrink depending on whether certain additional fields needed to be filled given certain preliminary responses. XFA forms are also capable of even more complex things via an associated scripting model.

In some ways, PDF-based XFA forms plus mobile sounds like a match made in heaven, right? Well, as the title of this article suggests, Adobe officially disagrees. In his post on the official LiveCycle Blog, Adobe's Jeff Stanier categorically stated that Adobe Reader Mobile does not and will not support XFA-based PDF forms. By way of justification, he cited device- and OS-bound restrictions in the mobile space.

He suggests that users should instead take advantage of the XFA structure to produce forms as HTML5 rather than PDF. While this would retain the power and flexibility of XFA-based PDF forms, it is essentially a workaround, at least when compared with the "ideal" case of working with XFA-based PDFs directly on mobile devices. Like all workarounds, this solution is imperfect.

Essentially, this forces those who want to implement XFA-based mobile forms on to the server. In Stanier's words, "Given the nature of HTML and the web, this is not a single file like a PDF that can be routed around in email. It's an online experience rendered by a server."

HTML5 cannot save form data. As such, the unlucky offline user would need to keep the form open until they could submit the information to avoid losing form data. To be fair, PDF forms can only save form data if: 1) they have been Reader-enabled to allow this at creation, or 2) the form-filler can use Acrobat or a third-party PDF viewer that allows the saving of XFA form data.

On the desktop, this is possible with PDF in a way that it isn't with HTML, but mobile is a different story. Option 1 (Reader-enabling) permits additional functionality like saving in Adobe Reader, which we already know will not support XFA-based PDF on mobile. Meanwhile, Option 2 requires a third-party mobile viewer that supports XFA-based PDF, but I know of no such animal.

For right now, it is possible to work with PDF- or HTML5-based forms using Adobe's Mobile Workspace app, although this is tied to the proprietary Adobe LiveCycle workflow. While there's a chance that the app might be opened to support third-party solutions, Adobe has made no commitment to do so at this point.

It's worth noting that, strictly speaking, since Adobe Reader Mobile hasn't previously supported XFA-based PDFs, no-one is technically losing anything except the hope of future support. This latest announcement is simply a confirmation that such support will not be added in the future.

We'll see what the future holds. Perhaps the intrepid field agents I mentioned earlier will simply have to opt for lightweight laptops like the MacBook Air or "productivity" tablets like Microsoft's Surface Pro 3. Then, they'll be able to simply run the desktop versions of Adobe Reader -- or even Acrobat, for that matter.

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