Forms Follow Function, but XML Doesnt, Necessarily

Opinion: Large-scale, feature-rich implementations of XML forms from Adobe, IBM, and Microsoft might be an answer in search of a problem.

At the PDF Conference in Washington, D.C. this week I walked the halls searching for an answer to this question: Now that IBM is getting into forms through two initiatives—acquiring PureEdge and a separate piece on the mobile side—how will the industry respond?

Granted, the forum was a PDF show, so soliciting opinions on forms built on technologies other than PDF would be akin to asking a gathering of Yankees fans if they think the Red Sox have a chance to win it all. Or, more aptly, asking them to gauge the Montreal Alouettes chances of winning the Grey Cup.

Or so you would think. Yet, thats not the case, because many forms software vendors exhibiting at the show make their living by staying technology-agnostic and supporting whatever their customers use to build forms, be it HTML, XML, or the two flavors of PDF forms, AcroForms (built in Acrobat) and XML (LiveCycle Designer).

The free market governs the discussion. And the free market, apparently, hasnt really embraced XML forms yet, according to these experts.

"Better than 80 percent of the forms dont require [XML]. They need simple tools and simple ways to get the data [back] to them," says Chris Pieper, CEO of FormRouter, whose ASP service covers the back end of managing forms data for a subscription fee. He classifies HTML and AcroForms-type electronic forms as "business forms" and the more complex XML-driven forms as "IT-driven" forms.

"That doesnt take away from the other 20 percent that need database integration and logins," he continues, "but we need simple solutions that represent probably the bulk of the forms out there, and technology [that works for] an administrative executive or a marketing manager or somebody who couldnt [explain] an XML form or a CGI script if their life depended on it."

No love for InfoPath

Franklin Garner, president of Amgraf, goes so far as to say he feels that Adobes purchase of Accelio and its release of the ensuing LiveCycle XML-based product line werent necessarily undertaken to address a market need but instead to respond to Microsofts InfoPath—a product that still hasnt caught on with much of anyone, including forms software developers like his company.

With LiveCycle, Garner feels Adobe was and still is "competing with a ghost": InfoPaths potential. Garner sees InfoPath as a product that might be good five years from now, but for which people today arent ready.

"Ostensibly, InfoPath would rock the industry," Garner says of the hype behind InfoPaths 2003 release. "We could have devoted development resources and marketing resources to responding to how people were going to do things with InfoPath. But it hasnt really proven to be anything significant. That doesnt mean its not going to be, but we have no reaction yet."

Tim Sullivan, of server application vendor ActivePDF, says very few, if any, of his customers have attempted to use InfoPath or the IBM mobile system. He believes IBM s mobile forms solution probably wont cut into the PDF forms market but instead will be useful for large companies already working with IBM products like WebSphere and Domino. It might do well in certain niches, such as for warehousing and distribution at very large companies using RFID (radio-frequency identification) systems.

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