Documents dont have the panache they used to. Most people dont know the difference between a document and a Web page, and, even if they do, they dont see why documents are necessary in the first place.
(Hint: Documents are self-contained, encapsulated information, and, sometimes, its legally required or simply practical to have electronic forms that are identical to printed ones.)
Adobe Systems Inc.s Document Server, which shipped last month, will further blur that definition while making the document a more powerful medium. Document Server is a $20,000-per-CPU server that dynamically creates documents that can be signed, filled out as a form or simply read. In short, the things that Document Server can do almost instantly might take weeks or months to do without it.
On the downside, however, organizations that use Document Server have a steep (but quick) learning curve to overcome, and theyll be facing unfamiliar territory with new standards, such as XSL-FO (Extensible Style Sheets-Formatting Objects). Theyll also likely be integrating Document Server by themselves, because the product is new, and very few of their peers have practical experience with it.
With Document Server, Adobe is leveraging the popularity of its PDF file type. Adobe officials claim more than 300 million copies of Acrobat Reader have been downloaded or distributed, and hundreds of millions of documents are stored as PDFs.
At its core, Document Server is a superset of Adobes Graphic Server, formerly named Altercast. Graphic Server concentrates on distributing and assembling graphics, but Document Server digests most Adobe formats as well as some standard files, assembles the documents and spits out PDFs.
Document Server works equally well with forms and regular documents. It also works well with SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), a Worldwide Web Consortium standard for defining electronic documents through XML. The advantage of SVG over graphics stored in JPEG and PNG formats is that the graphics are scalable and readable by any device with an appropriate reader.
Regardless, most electronic forms will be based on XSL-FO. Document Server, however, works best when used with Adobes product line, including FrameMaker, Photoshop and Illustrator. Organizations that havent standardized on Adobe products may not find Document Server as compelling.
We tested Document Server on a single-processor Windows XP system. We created Illustrator files, borrowed Photoshop graphics and created a set of FrameMaker templates. (FrameMaker is used mainly for technical publishing and electronic document template creation.)
Document Server is a command-line tool without a GUI, so we submitted most commands in a DOS window. The command syntax is easy to understand and can be easily automated. Our goal was to create a master document by taking an Illustrator file, converting it to PDF, overlaying a Photoshop image for a logo and using a FrameMaker template to create the text flow.
It took less than 20 seconds for Document Server to spin out a PDF. Thats when we realized the potential for the product. Since Document Server can pull information from any XML source through Simple Object Access Protocol or another standard protocol, the system can populate forms, invoices or any other document and actually publish dynamic documents.
On the flip side, standard Document Server cannot process form information submitted back to an organization. For example, a company cannot publish a form and have users fill it out and send it back to the system. Adobe, instead, has released Document Server with Reader Extensions, a product that is targeted at the government and costs $1.5 million to implement. Document Server for Reader Extensions gives governmental agencies the ability to control access rights on the forms and have the information passed back to the server, even if the user was not connected at the time the form was filled out.
Also missing from Document Server are both an integrated development environment—or even an XML editor—and a way to tightly integrate Document Servers numerous commands into commonly used development tools, such as Microsoft Corp.s Visual Studio.
Smaller organizations may be able to get by using Adobe Acrobat, which requires the document creator to include an interactive form with the full version of Acrobat.
There are also open-source initiatives that are just beginning to emerge. Because the standards are being set for the format and structure of documents, it might be only a matter of time before there are multiple competitors to Adobe, including the OpenJade project. For now, however, Adobe is at least two years ahead of its competitors.
eWeek Labs Director John Taschek is at firstname.lastname@example.org.