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Next Generation eForms: PDF, Infopath or ...?

January 26, 2004

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Jon Udell, lead analyst of the InfoWorld Test Center, writes in Infoworld.com recently on the advantages of electronic forms, noting that:

"... they provide a more accurate, intuitive replacement for paper forms than plain HTML forms or antiseptic data entry screens."

Udell goes on to mention relevant offerings from Microsoft, Adobe, Cardiff and PureEdge, mentioning first what they each have in common: the use of XML "as the bridge between applications that gather data from end-users and the back-office systems that absorb that data." He then proceeds to underscore some of the key differences, such as the "relationship of e-forms solutions to printed forms, and to the processes that surround them."

"It builds on a capability that Adobe has quietly embedded into the free Acrobat Reader."
Jon Udell, InfoWorld Test Center

In one section of his January 23 article "Next-generation e-forms," Udell addresses the increasingly cited "Adobe vs. Microsoft" rivalry -- or more specifically, InfoPath vs. PDF.

In mentioning that "Adobe plans to ship a beta version of its PDF- and XML-oriented forms designer in the first quarter of this year," Udell continues:

" ... Adobe's forthcoming solution is certain to attract attention. It builds on a capability that Adobe has quietly embedded into the free Acrobat Reader. Version 6 of that product can display a form backed by XML data that is governed by any XML Schema definition. According to Adobe Senior Product Manager Chuck Myers, no licensed extensions are required in order to interact with that data and post it back to a Web server or to transmit it by e-mail. An enterprise that needs its users to save forms locally for offline use and to digitally sign, annotate, or connect them to Web services end points will be able to unlock these capabilities using Adobe's Document Server for Reader Extensions."

Adobe's missing link, says Udell, has been the lack of an "XML-aware forms designer," something which the company demonstrated at the XML 2003 Conference last month. As Udell describes it:

"The Adobe Forms Designer supports two approaches to creating forms. As with InfoPath, you can start with a blank canvas plus a schema, paint the canvas with user-interface widgets, and then bind schema elements to those widgets by dragging and dropping. Or you can start with an existing PDF form and bind schema elements to regions of the form. Wizards that guide users through complex data-entry chores and implement procedural validation can be added as scripted extensions."

He concludes that since "Adobe's solution leverages features that already exist in the free and widely deployed Acrobat Reader, its reach will exceed that of InfoPath, a product that is available only for Windows and is bundled only with the enterprise edition of Office 2003." In addition, Udell says Adobe's use of PDF in comparison to InfoPath "also trumps Microsoft's in terms of its fidelity to printed forms."

Udell previously explored the Adobe vs. Microsoft theme in an August 14, 2003, column titled "Acrobat challenges InfoPath."

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