OmniForm 4.0: Looking good but could be better

In the government's ongoing effort to reduce the amount of paperwork that its employees and the general public must complete, one of the most effective weapons in its arsenal may be Caere Corp.'s OmniForm 4.0 electronic forms tool.

Built around the optical character recognition (OCR) engine found in Caere's OmniPage Pro 9.0, OmniForm's specialty is scanning paper forms into electronic format, and it excels at this. Given that the product's design and editing tools leave something to be desired and output to Hypertext Markup Language is in need of further work, many potential users will want to wait for a future update for improvements.

Just as OCR has improved in accuracy and ease of use, so has OmniForm's form recognition capabilities. Version 4.0's accuracy with text and graphic elements is good enough that you may not have to make any corrections after scanning your form, provided the form's type size is large enough. I found the cutoff in the Arial font to be between 10 and 12 points for acceptable recognition.

The program will even recognize fields with common labels, such as "Date," and convert them into corresponding data field types. Another first is color recognition and matching. With the recent proliferation of color printers, this new feature may become even more important than it seems.

On the other hand, OmniForm can seem overeager to do your job for you in some respects. The most common type of correction I had to make was reconverting horizontal rules that had been misidentified as data entry fields. Such edits are easier to make with the new, versatile and wizard-like Proofreader window, which includes a tool to change these fields back to plain-old lines.

OmniForm makes it tough to create new forms, though, or even to make design changes to scanned forms. Its design toolkit remains somewhere to the south of basic, even lacking methods to group objects or add a column to a table. If your main interest is in creating new forms, you'll want to look for a stronger toolkit.

Tools to Enhance Forms

In addition to the field-type recognition and color matching, OmniForm is full of tools to enhance forms for electronic use.

Data entry assistance is provided by calculating fields, drop-down lists and serial numbers. You can designate any field as a signature field or add hyperlinks to your form. The security feature enables you to specify that a certain field or the entire form will be locked upon the "signing," or filling, of a signature field.

Finally, the program enables you to save files to a range of useful formats - including HTML, Microsoft Corp.'s Rich Text Format and Adobe Systems Inc.'s Portable Document Format as well as earlier versions of OmniForm (2.0 and 3.0) and OmniForm Markup Language (OFML) - for use on the World Wide Web with a plug-in reader. Users of Microsoft's Web Publishing Wizard (Version 1.52 or later) also can use the publish-to-Web option.

When I tried saving a form with calculating fields in HTML, the result also had calculating fields, thanks to automated use of JavaScript. While I found this truly impressive, I was less than thrilled with the squashed appearance of one line of fields and the apparent dropout of a couple of rows in my table of fields, leaving blank lines in their place. These glitches wouldn't have been all that disappointing except that the form editing tools are so crude that I despaired of ever being able to fix the problems.

Caere also offers a separate OmniForm Filler edition for agencies with multiple users who need to fill in electronic forms but not to generate or edit them.

Installing OmniForm on my scanning system wasn't as smooth as it might have been. This was my own fault in one sense, but the software offered little in the way of a solution.

The problem came up because multiple operating systems have created a chronic shortage of free space on my hard drive. But OmniForm's installation procedure did not let me know all of its needs ahead of time. I did get a figure for the program's requirements, but no mention was made of the space that I actually needed on my hard drive.

In the days before everyone licensed InstallShield for their installation procedures, responsible vendors often let you know not only how much drive space you'd need but also where you'd need it. Now most vendors seem to rely on InstallShield's Back button to give users the installation flexibility they need. With my hard drive cramped, I find this frustrating but not specific to OmniForm 4.0. However, once the space problem was ironed out, installation and configuration were automatic and smooth.

OmniForm comes with a generally capable and well-indexed printed user guide. I found online help less useful for design and editing methods, but it does include four very handy online tutorials.

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

*****

OmniForm 4.0Caere Corp.(800) 535-7226www.caere.com

Price and Availability: OmniForm 4.0 is available on the General Services Administration schedule through several government resellers. It costs $149 and is not sold in multipacks. OmniForm Filler costs $49 (single), $199 (five pack) or $1,579 (50 pack).

Remarks: OmniForm 4.0's form scanning and conversion to electronic format are quite good, but deficient design and editing tools and buggy HTML conversion mar the product's finish. Those simply wanting to convert paper to electronic forms will be pleasantly surprised, but users needing to create or redesign forms may experience another kind of surprise.

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