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EForms -- A new user interface paradigm

Given the huge number of forms used in organizations, it is surprising that more tools and systems are not available to improve form handling. All this is changing as a number of influences come together to raise the profile of eForms.

Market Analysis

EForms -- A new user interface paradigm
We all hate filling in forms but they are a becoming increasingly popular and more complex. Why do organizations create so many paper forms? For two main reasons: they save time compared with a face-to-face meeting - only one person is involved at a time in creating or capturing information, secondly they ensure all the information needed for a business transaction is captured once and for all - saving a lot of toing and froing.

Given the huge number of forms used in organizations, it is surprising that more tools and systems have not been made available to improve forms handling. All this is changing as a number of influences come together to raise the profile of eForms - the electronic capture of information using intelligent forms.

Filenet has recently acquired Shana Corporation, a long-term partner, to offer the well-regarded Filenet Forms Manager. Adobe has made notable progress recently in establishing Adobe Acrobat as a central player in forms management with Adobe Acrobat eForms. And of course, Microsoft, with the forthcoming release of InfoPath in Office 11 has entered the ring.

One of the key influences on the uptake of eForms is XML. XML is an excellent technology match with eForms. eForms can act as a front end to capture XML formatted data that can be easily fed into a variety of applications, databases and document stores.

eForms are portable and routable so they can pass between people and applications, collecting and disseminating information, forming the basis for workflow.

EForms reduce the chore of form filling with immediate validation and dynamic presentation of the form according to the content entered. eForms can support automatic numbering, contextual help and can pre-fill information as the form is completed. Importantly, non-technical staff can develop eForms, reducing any delays and costs in using IT staff.

IBM and Novell are now taking a strong interest in eForms. Novell plans to provide visual tools based on XForms, a W3C standard, in the next major release of Novell exteNd, its Web application development suite. IBM has also been a strong supporter of the proposed W3C standard.

The W3C has been working on XForms, based on XML (Extensible Markup Language), for about two years. A forms protocol based on HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) already exists but doesn't separate the content from the presentation of a form. In contrast, XForms contain separate sections describing what the form does and how the form looks so that XForms are reusable on PCs, handheld devices, cellular phones and other systems. XForms are also dynamic, as we described above, so their format can change as new information is entered and validated.

With over 500 million copies of Adobe Acrobat in circulation, Adobe is well placed to embed its portable document format more deeply into enterprise systems. However, it is estimated that 80 percent of the world's business documents are created in Microsoft's .doc format.

There is much to play for as these and other organizations converge on the same solution space.

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