JetForm to support XML in forms software

JetForm Corp. plans to announce this week that its electronic forms products will support Extensible Markup Language (XML), a standard for defining World Wide Web-based documents that is gaining popularity as a way to secure and enable processing of online files.

Like a competing proposal from forms vendor UWI.Com, JetForm's XML Forms Architecture (XFA), would enable agencies to capture signatures from digital forms, a key capability as they move to comply with the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, a 1998 law that mandates federal agencies to do business with citizens online. But industry analysts disagree whether XFA or UWI.Com's Extensible Forms Description Language (XFDL) can fill the immediate needs of federal customers.

"We're seeing the development of an XML infrastructure for specific applications and agency needs," said Andy Warzecha, senior program director with the technology research firm Meta Group. The act "ties directly into this in terms of the need to be able to deal with digital signatures in electronic documents and forms. Right now, there are no real standards surrounding that in the governmental arena, [and] there is still a need to follow the federal guidelines."

But Rita Knox, vice president and research director with Gartner Group, said "it would be premature" to commit to one set of specifications over another. She said forms vendors, together with customers and vendors of applications that use the data from online forms, should agree on a common standard.

JetForm and UWI.Com are seeking the endorsement of the World Wide Web Consortium, the international standards-setting body for the Web, but any such approval is far off.

XML is a Web-enabled version of Standard Generalized Markup Language, a language for tagging data in a file so that it can be read by different end-user applications. Unlike Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the most common format for Web documents, XML allows files to be structured in different ways.

XFA and XDFL enable users to capture and secure the information contained in a form, such as a name, address or a signature, no matter how the form is designed. The specifications differ, however, in how they treat the data. XFDL is designed to create secure transaction records by capturing the content and presentation of the data together. XFA allows this but also enables users to extract the data from the form and reuse it.

"You can't be indifferent to the differences between approaches," said Nathaniel Palmer, senior consultant with The Delphi Group. The specification an agency chooses "affects what you're trying to secure, how it's presented, how it's dealt with," Palmer said.

Eric Stevens, chief technical evangelist at JetForm, said the company is not trying to create a standard. "Our intention is to put forward some of the issues our customers have raised with us about how XML should be used in these kind of environments," Stevens said.

Existing JetForm file formats are proprietary, Stevens said, which has been "a burden on our customers." He said XFA provides "a common format we can adapt to new technologies" and will enable the company "to better add new capabilities and features" that integrate with third-party applications.

XFA has obtained the endorsement of several vendors of signature technology, including PenOp Inc., Silanis Technology Inc., Entrust Technologies Inc. and VeriSign Inc. VeriSign also supports XFDL, as does GTE Cybertrust Solutions.

Stevens said JetForm will incorporate the XFA specification in the next release of its FormFlow 99 electronic forms software. A beta version is scheduled for distribution this summer, with a full release planned for the fall.

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