Its On: IBM Takes on Adobe, Microsoft with E-Forms

The purchase is an early skirmish in the looming war between Adobe, Microsoft and Big Blue when it comes to controlling the e-forms market-a hungry market fueled by federal mandate and compliance efforts.

IBM on Tuesday announced it is snapping up PureEdge Solutions Inc., a developer of electronic forms that hook into back-end data and applications in order to present them to users in standardized, customizable templates.

As a partner, PureEdge is already tightly integrated with IBM technologies. Its XML forms are integrated with IBMs Content Manager, WebSphere Portal, Lotus, DB2 and Portal product lines.

Linked together, PureEdge and IBM business process automation tools enable the management of data through life cycles of business processes.

Ambuj Goyal, general manager of Workplace, Portal and Collaboration for IBMs Software Group, said in a conference call with reporters and analysts that the acquisition is destined to spread the e-forms technology across the product lines. To do that, IBM needs to have the technology in-house rather than in a partnering scenario, he said.

IBM also seeks to push forward the adoption of the XForms standard, a standard that describes what the form does and how it looks, thus allowing flexible presentation options, including classic XHTML forms, to be attached to an XML form definition.

"Whats happening now, [forms such as those having to do with warranty management and insurance] are being captured in the currency of exchange across business processes," Goyal said.

"They get captured in one technology and cant be shared in another. [XForms] is a standard we want to propagate into the marketplace. Customers will benefit if they dont get locked into a proprietary technology."

/zimages/6/28571.gifIBMs database queen, Janet Perna, will retire soon, with Ambuj Goyal stepping into her shoes. Read more here.

Ken Bisconti, vice president of Workplace, Portal and Collaboration Software, said key business drivers in the marketplace are that customers of many kinds, specifically in banking, health care and other regulated businesses, are focused on automating business processes. E-forms are commonly used on the front end of this automation.

IBM has been in the e-forms business for some time now, including with its Notes and Domino technologies. E-forms range in capability from basic Web forms to more advanced tools that involve some level of business domain knowledge. Thus, many of IBMs customers use Infopath or Adobe Systems tools in addition to Notes or Domino.

"At a higher level of value is where we see industry-specific forms solutions, digital signature support, compliance support, and the ability to encapsulate and manage relevant file [attachments]," Bisconti said.

"Thats the area where its hardest to provide. Thats an area where PureEdge, in the market about a dozen years, has been very successful at providing value to banking, insurance, health care, government, [etc.]."

PureEdge is "unique in the industry," said PureEdge CEO Mark Upson, in that it addresses high-end industry needs, including pixel-level exactness in form replication.

Beginning as early as the start of next year, PureEdge technology will pop up in IBM product lines including Workplace and Portal.

One IBM partner that has cause to be taken aback by the acquisition news is Adobe Systems Inc. IBM on Tuesday announced that it had signed up 100 software partners to use its Workplace software in order to increase the adoption of its desktop package. A big name on the partner list was Adobe, which is plotting its own strategy to jump on the e-forms bandwagon.

James Governor, an analyst for Redmonk, said Adobe traditionally wouldnt have been called an enterprise software company, but that has changed with the rollout of the companys LiveCycle technology.

"Basically, theyve done a few quite interesting things," he said. "One of them being the fact that if you think about PDF, which on the face of it is just literally a piece of glass with stuff written on it … you dont think of PDF as an automated form platform. That is where theyre heading."

Adobe has positioned itself nicely, Governor said, and sneakily, in that the API hooks were already within the PDF format, "but they didnt make a big deal of it," he said.

Thus, Adobe workflows are already positioned to become more programmatic—a nice play to be, since government organizations including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Defense are mandating PDFs as a display mechanism. "And to say, Well, what if you could enter data into Adobe work forms, and it goes to the back end?" Governor said. "Its not such a stretch [that government bodies] would be mandating [Adobe] as a forms mechanism."

IBM is determined to buckle down in terms of getting XForms, instead of Adobe, accepted as a standard within industries affected by compliance and government mandate, Governor said—thus the PureEdge acquisition.

"For all the facts IBM is talking about standards, I can see a big fight between IBM, Adobe and Microsoft shaping up for dominance of this market," he said.

The notion of where do forms, i.e., people, meet business processes means that IBMs positioning makes sense, Governor said—particularly with Microsoft long having delayed what its client strategy is around this growing need.

Who looks best situated to dominate? IBM has "fantastic" back-end enterprise real estate, Governor said, which could benefit from richer front ends. Adobe, on the other hand, has an "unbelievable lock" on that front end.

"If we think of government mandates for PDF, that occurs across many industries. So, while theyre not famous for back-end tooling, theyre well-positioned to sell stuff that supports it," he said.

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