Efficient e-forms ready for e-gov

A look at products from three vendors that can help agencies move key processes online

Ever since the E-Government Act of 2002, electronic forms have become all the rage at agencies. And what's not to like? When properly implemented, e-forms promise to cut time and costs from agency business processes.

When agency back-office staffers key in data from paper forms, the amount of time required and the potential for error are great. By contrast, e-forms allow the general public, agency staffers, contractors and agencies to accurately complete forms with text fields that can automatically be filled in from available data to achieve increased efficiency.

Moreover, you can integrate e-forms processing into agency workflows, which speeds transactions. You can also store e-forms in agency document repositories and integrate them with other document management, Web and portal-based technologies. Tight audit and security features and form capabilities that meet compliance requirements also make e-forms attractive.

But e-forms are not perfect. The challenge for e-form providers is to decide whether to provide a complete e-forms platform — graphical user interface, design tools, management and workflow tools, and full support for form distribution and storage — or to provide solid user interfaces and robust design tools that integrate with existing agency infrastructure components such as Web portals.

Agency IT buyers examining the e-forms landscape will need to analyze available solutions vs. their existing infrastructure. In addition, buyers will need to carefully consider whether to purchase a solution that supports proprietary formats or open standards.

Also during e-forms proof-of-concept projects, question the amount of programming you need to make forms "intelligent" enough to yield the expected return on investment. If you are going to integrate e-forms with relational databases, Extensible Markup Language repositories, Web services, portals or document management systems, you don't want the programming effort to become a bottleneck.

You must also consider cost, security, compliance and training.

With all of the above in mind, we recently examined e-forms solutions from three providers — Adobe Systems, Primary Software and PureEdge Solutions. We found different approaches from all three companies.

The Adobe platform

Adobe's e-forms solution is part of the company's Intelligent Document Platform. Under the umbrella of the Adobe solution are a number of products that relate to e-forms. We examined four — Acrobat 7.0 Professional, LiveCycle Designer 7.0, LiveCycle Form Manager 6.0 and LiveCycle Forms 6.0, formerly Form Server.

LiveCycle Designer is included in the nearly ubiquitous Acrobat product, and you can use it to create a number of forms. Developers can create PDF-, HTML- or XML-based forms. We found the Designer tools first-rate, and we were able to quickly and easily create forms from scratch and via several templates. If your agency wants forms with a common look and feel, you might start by creating a Designer template.

Designer's interface will look and feel familiar to developers who have worked in integrated development environments. A tabbed center pane allows users to quickly switch between master and body pages, XML source and a PDF preview of the form.

In the right pane, the library of form elements is easily accessible, as is the properties dialogue box and the integrated help menu. To create forms, we dragged and dropped elements from the library onto several body pages. We especially liked being able to combine a number of form elements such as address, city, state and ZIP code, into one element and save it to the library. Being able to add aggregate elements to the library speeds development.

You can map form fields against a variety of data sources, such as an XML schema, a Web services database or an Object Linking and Embedding database-accessible database. During our tests, we successfully mapped to several XML schemas. Like many of its rivals, Adobe includes support for bar codes.

Designer's layout tools were helpful, including the ability to snap form elements to the grid. You can also set a number of properties for a given field. For example, we were able to set the expected format for the input, add field-level help and specify whether the field was user-entered or calculated.

You can secure forms created with Designer in several ways. For example, you can restrict fields and prevent users from being able to change or print the form. Moreover, digital signatures can be added to forms to secure the contents.

Developers will find integrated support for the JavaScript and FormCalc languages, which you can use to calculate fields or build applications. Support exists for scripting on the client, server or both.

Designer's documentation is detailed, and we had no trouble locating information to complete our tests. Like its competitors, Adobe includes tutorials, which offer a good starting point for agencies to evaluate the Adobe solution from a development perspective.

Adobe Acrobat 7.0 has some nifty additions, too. With this release, you can create PDF documents from multiple files. Various file types can be attached to a PDF file, and if the PDF file is moved, the attachments go with it.

Another useful addition to Acrobat is the ability to review documents. Multiple users can read and comment on a document, and the software tracks comments as the review proceeds. Moreover, the company added support for reading form fields out loud as a user tabs over them. The former is useful for commenting on forms as they go through the development life cycle, while the latter will be useful to users who need additional accessibility to complete forms.

Like the products from Primary Software and PureEdge, Adobe forms can be integrated with other server-side processes, such as a portal or Web site. Adobe has products that provide additional infrastructure services, which are useful in agencies that may not have all their infrastructure components deployed.

For example, we looked at two of Adobe's infrastructure components — Forms and Form Manager. Forms enables agencies to deploy Web and PDF forms outside the firewall. This might be good if you don't have a comprehensive infrastructure with which to securely deploy forms in an extranet or Internet setting. We found the effort to deploy Forms roughly analogous to the time needed to securely deploy forms for external users and business partners using other Web and portal technologies.

Form Manager is a server-side repository best suited to agencies with many forms and form users. The version of Forms Manager we tested uses IBM's WebSphere. We initially had trouble with the role-based security setup, but after a few hours, we were able to deploy Form Manager successfully.

Form Manager can prepopulate fields for users based on their profiles and roles. This is especially useful for organizations that use many forms and other data sources.

Adobe supplies other related products under the Intelligent Document Platform umbrella that may be of interest to agencies. For example, LiveCycle Reader Extensions allows administrators and developers to embed usage rights into documents or forms prior to deploying them. Depending on the rights granted, users might be able to work with specific portions of a document or form or save it online or off-line.

If your agency wants to use bar-coded forms extraction to increase integration with other infrastructure components, LiveCycle Barcoded Forms might be worth considering, compared with Optical Character Recognition or other technologies. In addition, Adobe offers a policy server and a document security product if your agency requires extra tight controls on document and forms content.

The quality of the Adobe solution is great. If you choose to implement all of the infrastructure pieces of this solution, it could get expensive. Moreover, developers may have to do a good bit of scripting work to implement all the automation necessary to yield a positive ROI.

If you choose to use Adobe's products, you can pick among the products under the LiveCycle umbrella. For example, if bar-coded forms are crucial to your organization, you might choose Acrobat, Designer and the LiveCycle Barcoded Forms products.

Primary Software's vision

If your agency has a significant infrastructure inclusive of document management, portals and other Web-serving technology, Primary Software's VisiForm solution may be a good fit. The core solution provides a form designer and an end-user tool called Filler.

The VisiForm Designer provides a useful interface for creating forms. However, we found it a bit counterintuitive. During our tests, we had to use the toolbar, function keys or the View menu to switch between design mode, preview view and the code window. Because of that, our forms development took longer than it did with the other products we tested. A tabbed development paradigm would have helped.

The Properties window was accessible only via the toolbar, function keys or the view menu. We wished we could have docked the properties window within the Designer interface. This, too, would have sped development.

That aside, VisiForm excels at multipage forms. Its layout and formatting tools are well designed. We were able to create several multipage forms with different layouts and orientations.

Although VisiForm comes with built-in controls, we could not create custom controls and add them to the list. The abilities to spell check and zoom in and out were useful, as was the thumbnail navigation.

The Designer documentation gave us the information we needed to complete our forms. We downloaded and tried the tutorial on advanced calculation techniques. It would be a good method of keeping developers abreast as the product progresses.

Like its rival Adobe, the VisiForm solution enables developers to use either Visual Basic Script or Java Script to build calculations within forms or develop entire forms applications. After accessing the code editor window, we had no trouble adding Java Script to several of our test forms.

VisiForm Designer forms are saved in a proprietary format. This is not a problem at agencies that use Microsoft Windows, but for agencies that interact with the public, it may present an issue because many customers may be using other operating systems, such as Apple Computer's Mac OS X or Linux.

Primary Software tries to account for this limitation to a certain extent by providing something called POP!Forms. These are compiled VisiForms that can be filled out on Windows machines that are not running any VisiForm products. Adding support for calling up forms in Web browsers or other nonplatform-specific ways would expand VisiForm's usefulness.

After creating a variety of forms, we used the VisiForm Filler client application to gauge how easy it was to complete the input on our test forms. Primary Software has done a good job with Filler, and although it is proprietary and limited to Windows, we were able to quickly complete our test forms.

As with the other products, you can secure VisiForm forms, including restricted templates and forms limited to certain users. If you need bar code support, however, you'll need to wait for an upcoming release of VisiForm.

Primary Software does not try to provide your infrastructure layer. Instead, it supplies a routing add-in that supports HTTP GET and POST network commands, e-mail routing, and additional scripting functions. This type of support assumes that your agency has a mature infrastructure for document and form handling and for portal and Web services.

VisiForm is a viable solution if your agency has a mature infrastructure, does not extensively use forms and has limited requirements for interfacing with customers or contractors.

PureEdge's open-standard advantage

PureEdge's e-forms solution, PureEdge 8x, involves five components — E-Form, Designer, Viewer, WebForm Server and Server. Those components and support for open standards, such as XML and Web services, enable agencies to expand e-forms to a variety of users. The product's strong support of open standards simplifies integration with other infrastructure components you may have on hand, such as IBM's Content Manager.

The E-Form component of PureEdge's solution is a stand-alone XML object that can be used within or outside a firewall. The GUI, business logic and data layers are melded together in E-Form, which supports digital signatures and routing.

PureEdge also offers other ways for users to work with with e-forms: using a Web browser or the thick-client Viewer. During our tests, we used a Web browser to open and interact with several e-forms we had created. Working with e-forms using a Web browser proved just as easy as the thick-client approach. By bringing e-forms support to Web browsers, PureEdge enables agencies to more easily implement an e-form solution across the enterprise, which likely may include external contractors and the public.

Viewer is easy to use. It includes extensions to support bar codes, image capture, document scanning and encryption.

You can deploy PureEdge e-forms using a wizard, which is useful for breaking longer forms into more manageable sections or hiding portions of a form that require input only under certain circumstances. Viewer also supports accessibility options, such as screen readers for users who may require them.

PureEdge also excels in auditing and security. Agencies can set up e-forms to include authentication and digital signatures and capture entire transactions, including GUI interactions and approvals, for auditing purposes. PureEdge's auditing capabilities will be most useful in agencies that use and track many forms.

As with other e-forms solutions, PureEdge supports a few options for form input. Users can work on the network or off-line. Even when they are on the network, they can automatically save a backup of the e-form. Off-line archiving is also supported.

Our timing for examining the PureEdge Designer 8x (release 6.5.0) was a little tricky because PureEdge is in the midst of changing its Designer interface. Due in September, the reshaped Designer 9 will sport an interface based on the open-standards Eclipse platform.

If you've worked with Eclipse or products based on it, the new version of PureEdge's Designer will feel comfortable. The center pane contains a tabbed interface that lets you quickly switch between design, code and preview modes. The left and right panes contain a palette of form elements, a properties dialogue and an outline viewer.

Among the elements available in Designer's palette are components that comprise the XForms and Extensible Forms Description Language (XFDL) standards. XFDL is a standard based on XML that enables developers to create complex, legally binding forms for the Web. The source code for XForms-based e-forms includes separate sections to define what a form does vs. how it looks. This enables agencies to extend the presentation layer beyond browser-based or thick clients.

For comparative purposes, we created several forms using Designer 8. PureEdge meets its rivals head-on in terms of layout and form-design facilities, and we were successfully able to create several test forms. As with the VisiForm Designer, PureEdge Designer 8 is not a multitabbed workspace, and form elements and properties windows are not dockable in the panes within the interface. PureEdge Designer is usable, but the new Eclipse-based version will yield greater productivity for agency developers.

Unlike its rivals, PureEdge uses the open-standard XFDL to enable simple calculations or complex functions. Among other things, developers can manually enter formulas or use if-then-else logic. The company includes tutorial material to help developers get up to speed on programming functionality into forms. Moreover, we found PureEdge's documentation to be detailed, and we had no trouble locating the information we needed to complete our test forms.

PureEdge offers two other components that agencies may find useful. The PureEdge WebForm Server provides an infrastructure component capable of providing e-forms to external users via a Web browser. The product helps agencies integrate e-forms with other processes, such as workflow and enterprise data stores.

The PureEdge solution is a good fit for agencies that need to securely support a broad and diverse set of e-forms users and environments to meet compliance requirements. In particular, its strong support for open standards makes it easier to integrate into existing infrastructures while also addressing existing and emerging client types.

Emerging e-forms

Unlike many other technology areas, which are mature and commoditized, e-forms solutions are still evolving. As we found through our testing of these three solutions, each takes a slightly different tack on addressing e-forms requirements.

A successful agency e-forms strategy will require careful analysis of the many e-forms solutions. You must consider integration requirements, the potential reach of a particular solution and critical factors such as security and compliance before selecting the most appropriate solution for your agency.

Biggs, a senior engineer and freelance technical writer based in Northern California, is a regular Federal Computer Week analyst. She can be reached at maggiebiggs@acm.org.


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Score Cards

Acrobat Professional 7.0

Adobe Systems
(866) 766-2256
www.adobe.com

Usability: *****
Administration: *****
Development: *****
Deployment: *****
Integration: *****
Cost: ***

Price: Acrobat Professional LiveCycle Designer costs $449, LiveCycle Forms costs $40,000 per CPU and LiveCycle Form Manager costs $35,000 per CPU.

Pros: These products create e-forms through PDFs, HTML code or Extensible Markup Language. They include a highly productive Designer interface and support security and compliance. They come with components that allow users to create server e-forms outside firewalls and can support prepopulation of fields.

Cons: The solution could be costly depending on the number of forms and product components an organization implements. It may require significant scripting and integration work to achieve expected savings.

Platforms: Acrobat Professional uses Microsoft Windows and Apple Computer Mac OS X. LiveCycle Designer uses Windows. LiveCycle Form Server uses AIX, Linux, Sun Microsystems Solaris and Windows. LiveCycle Form Manager uses Linux and Windows.

VisiForm Designer and VisiForm Filler

Primary Software
(949) 338-5314
www.primarysoftware.com

Usability: ****
Administration: ****
Development: ****
Deployment: ****
Integration: ****
Cost: *****

Price: The products start at $199 for the Standard Edition VisiForm Designer and VisiForm Filler.

Pros: They have strong support for multipage e-forms with varied layouts and orientations, and spell check, zoom and thumbnail navigation features. Its e-forms client interface is easy to use, has good support for security and compliance and provides a routing add-in.

Cons: Support is limited to Microsoft Windows. Designer is not as intuitive as other e-forms design tools, and e-forms are saved in a proprietary format. It also may require significant scripting and integration work to achieve the expected return on investment.

Platforms: The products use Windows 9x, NT, 2000 and XP.

PureEdge 8x Suite

PureEdge Solutions
(888) 517-2675
www.pureedge.com

Usability: *****
Administration: *****
Development: *****
Deployment: *****
Integration: *****
Cost: ****

Price: The software suite starts at $150 per user. The final price is based on the number of forms and licenses required.

Pros: The solution supports existing and emerging open standards and thin- and thick-client interfaces. PureEdge's product includes strong auditing and security features and also features components that allow users to create server e-forms outside the firewall.

Cons: The solution could be somewhat costly depending on the number of forms implemented.

Platforms: The solution uses Apple Computer Mac OS X via Virtual PC; Microsoft Windows 98, Me, NT, 2000, XP and Internet Explorer; Mozilla; and Netscape. Server components support deployment using AIX, Linux, Sun Microsystems Solaris or Windows.

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