FormFlow 99 streamlines form management

Paper is out. Electronic forms are in. Thanks to a convergence of technologies as well as cost concerns, agencies are converting forms from paper to pixels. And as they move to electronic forms, agencies more often are streamlining procurement and other business processes by connecting applications directly to the converted forms.

JetForm Corp.'s latest electronic forms design offering, FormFlow 99, represents a strong move in this direction. Building on FormFlow 98's base, this version takes a big step away from proprietary formats and toward Microsoft Corp. and Internet standards. One important new feature is support for Extensible Markup Language data streams to and from World Wide Web servers. Combine this with the product's adoption of a component model based on Microsoft's Component Object Model, Distributed COM and ActiveX technologies, and agencies have lots of interoperability for applications and platform independence on the user end.

The new standards support enables users to use third-party components and write for thick or thin clients without breaking a sweat. Meanwhile, longtime JetForm customers can count on both on-screen and printed forms to reflect existing forms accurately enough to be official and legally binding.

We found it very easy to create a precisely laid out custom form with calculating fields. Moreover, when we deployed it on a Web server and called it up in a browser, the form became a fully featured applet because the necessary components were downloaded automatically. This alone sharply reduces administration requirements.

Other form components took longer to learn. This was because we were not sure what an e-mail object or a Data Control for Active Data Object does, and the program didn't tell us immediately. The e-mail object sends the completed form via e-mail to a predetermined address when the user clicks on it. The Data Control for ADO simplifies access to external databases.

Both the components of forms and the form containers themselves are ActiveX objects, so developers can easily incorporate them into applications.

Secure electronic signature capabilities complete the package, letting users do away with paper entirely.

It is not all roses, though. Developers using older versions (through 2.2) of FormFlow will have to convert their scripts because the new version only provides hooks to Microsoft's Active Scripting Engine, which supports only VBScript and Jscript. JetForm has included conversion utilities to make this process easier, but the older versions' FormBasic scripting language was somewhat more powerful.

FormFlow 99 still does not provide a scanner interface, so reading existing paper forms into the product is not an immediate option. However, a workaround is available. Texcel Systems Inc. offers a utility, called FormBridge, that converts Hewlett-Packard Co. LaserJet 3 print files to the FormFlow format. FormBridge is designed to recognize fields as well as line and text objects. It also attempts to match fonts.

While we still would like to see JetForm include a scanning solution with the product, few users will complain about the form-design interface, which achieves a fine balance between ease of use and design flexibility. The program includes new object types to easily drop in provisions for secure electronic signatures, reusable scripts and bar codes, among others. You also can store objects and groups of objects in a customizable library. And for the first time, FormFlow forms can be integrated with JetForm's InTempo workflow manager and JetCentral output solutions.

We ran into a couple of minor annoyances with the tutorial. One came up when using the Property Browser window to change objects' characteristics. Sometimes we could edit a field directly, but clicking into a field often and unpredictably popped up an editing box instead.

We also had some trouble setting the tabbing order through form fields. We could not keep one automated tab-order control from skipping over the middle column. This was resolved manually, however.

FormFlow 99 gives users three easy ways to get forms to end users. Both Internet-based and thin-client network users will appreciate access via Web browsers. Application developers will enjoy the ease and flexibility provided within this component model for embedding forms in custom applications to be supplied to users. And there is the FormFlow 99 End-user Component, a stand-alone "filler," form viewer and data entry application for kiosk, mail-out or networked use.

-- Marshall is a free-lance writer who has been reviewing software for 10 years.

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FormFlow 99JetForm Corp.(800)

Price and Availability: FormFlow 99 is available on Softmart Inc.'s General Services Administration schedule. The FormFlow 99 End-user Component runs $62 per seat, while the FormFlow 99 Forms Designer costs $1,166. Call (800) 628-9091

Remarks: FormFlow 99 has a powerful, flexible, easy-to-use design interface and zero-administration deployment. However, FormFlow 99 comes without its own scanning solution, and developers must use third-party development tools, scripting languages and components.

Final Score: Very Good


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