Showing good form
- By Michelle Speir, Patrick Marshall
- Sep 10, 2001
Cutting unnecessary paperwork is a worthy goal for any organization, but for federal agencies it's mandated by the Government Paperwork Elimination Act. That's a good incentive to take the flurry of paper forms that flow in and out of your agency and manage them electronically across the Internet. Digital forms software is not new. JetForm Corp. and Cardiff Software Inc. have for years offered products for creating forms that could be e-mailed or posted on Web sites. There have been, however, several things that limited their usefulness.
The most serious limitation was a lack of effective integration with back-end databases. Delivering static forms to users was simple, but if you wanted to move the information gathered by the form into a database, you had to rely on proprietary applications for manipulating the data and then devise some way of moving it into your enterprise database.
That limitation has been largely removed thanks to Extensible Markup Language (XML), which allows the items on Web pages to be labeled by type. That makes it possible for form designers to connect fields to an agency's existing data repositories in ways that were impossible previously. It also allows designers to change forms relatively easy so that they can be delivered to a variety of platforms, including handheld wireless devices.
Support for XML also enables a richer experience for the user in that it allows such tricks as database searches. You might, for example, enter a supervisor's name in the appropriate field on an expense report and, if the form has been so designed, the form server may query your organization's personnel database to validate the entry and automatically supply the correct data in the fields for, say, telephone number and e-mail address. Other factors that limited widespread adoption of digital forms were the difficulties of integrating with Web servers and the lack of effective security measures to ensure the authenticity of submitted forms. Both issues have been at least partially addressed in new software releases.
Bear in mind, however, that adopting and implementing a digital forms solution is a complex process that will require significant expertise in script writing, XML and Web site management. If you don't have that expertise in-house, you'll need to turn to an outside consultant if you want the full capabilities of these products.
The bottom line: Not only do digital forms promise substantial costs savings over paper forms, they offer much greater convenience for users, whether they are citizens submitting requests for information or contractors submitting expense reports.
In this comparison, we take a look at products by the two biggest names in digital forms software: FormFlow 99 and ReachForm from JetForm and LiquidOffice from Cardiff. A third player in the market—OmniForm by ScanSoft Inc. — is about to be released in a new version and we will review it when it becomes available.
FormFlow 99 and ReachForm
JetForm owns the lion's share of the digital forms market and also has the highest profile in the federal sector. The Canadian company has taken great care to fine-tune its products for U.S. government requirements, including tools for bringing forms into compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act for Web site accessibility and flexible options for employing digital signatures.
FormFlow 99 3.1 is JetForm's form designer, and it is the most powerful designer we've tested. The interface offers a concise view of drawing tools — including the usual assortment of boxes, radio buttons, drop-down lists and the like—as well as utilities in a panel on the right. You can also collapse or expand windows in the panel showing either the properties of the currently selected object or the library of available objects.
Adding objects to a form is as simple as clicking on an item in the right-side panel and dragging it to the desired location on the form. A grid can be toggled on or off for help in placing objects.
FormFlow also offers a strong set of tools for protecting the look and content of forms and form templates. The entire form template can be password protected to prevent changes by other editors. And validating-field controls and masked text fields ensure consistency of data entry. Validating fields require that the form data match data in back-end databases. If no match is found, the data entry will not be accepted. Masked text fields enforce data entry rules. A telephone number field, for example, can be masked to refuse all characters except numerals.
Several new features in Version 3.1 are tailor-made for federal users. At the top of the list is the incorporation of Verbal-Eyes, which detects and enables the speech function if a user is running a screen reader. As with previous versions, FormFlow 99 3.1 supports voice input, on-screen keyboards, keyboard switches and magnification programs.
Federal users will also appreciate Version 3.1's new support for digital signatures. Unlike Cardiff LiquidOffice, FormFlow offers built-in support for Microsoft Corp.'s CryptoAPI, and digital signatures from Netscape Communications Corp. and Entrust Inc. Entelligence. Signatures can be verified upon receipt or checked against a certificate revocation list. A new signature object-tracking tool tracks both the originator and the certificate authority of each signature.
To move forms to the Internet, you'll need JetForm's ReachForm 2.0. The ReachForm server not only delivers forms to the Web, it manages the exchange of data with connected databases and changes the results into appropriate formats for display. ReachForm does not have a user interface. Users will access forms via a Web browser or other device, while system administrators control ReachForm through FormFlow 99. When the designer attaches a script to a button in FormFlow, it is ReachForm that executes the script and performs any other specified operations, such as calculations and validations.
One area where ReachForm has an edge over LiquidOffice is in the delivery of forms to handheld devices. The program supports Pocket HTML and compact HTML for handheld devices, as well as Wireless Markup Language (WML) and Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) for reformatting and delivering forms.
A variety of sample forms and Web applications are included with ReachForm to help developers get their own content up and running more quickly. Our experience, however, indicates that designers should expect to spend significant time tuning scripts and developing applications that take best advantage of ReachForm.
The biggest gap we saw in the JetForm solution is the lack of an interface for managing forms and routing them for approval. Users can, however, use JetForm's workflow tool—InTempo—to achieve that goal. Although there's significant room to make FormFlow and, especially, ReachForm easier to use, the pair represents the most powerful options currently available for agencies that need to implement digital forms.
With LiquidOffice, Cardiff follows a drummer playing a somewhat different beat. Where the JetForm products assume there will be general access to forms, for example, LiquidOffice assumes controlled access by a managed set of users. Also, unlike ReachForm, LiquidOffice delivers built-in tools for managing forms and routing them for approval to designers.
The LiquidOffice Form Server, like JetForm's ReachForm, is used for publishing forms to the Internet and managing the connections between forms and back-end databases. In the case of LiquidOffice, that is accomplished via Java servlets. As a result, the Form Server can be run on either Microsoft Windows or Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris servers.
Unlike ReachForm, Liquid.Office is limited to displaying forms in PDF. On the plus side, Cardiff immediately has access to Adobe Systems Inc. Acrobat support for Section 508 accessibility requirements, as well as Acrobat's support for digital signatures. The downside of this strategy is that it relies upon users having an appropriate Acrobat reader. Acrobat Reader, Adobe's free reader, does not allow users to save forms and it does not support digital signatures. That means users will need to acquire either the full version of Acrobat or get Acrobat Approval, a lower-cost product designed specifically for working with digital forms.
Cardiff plans to add HTML display of forms in the near future, at which time it will have to directly implement Section 508 compliance features and digital signatures.
Where LiquidOffice differs most from ReachForm is in LiquidOffice's Web Desktop, which offers an intuitive interface for routing, tracking, approving and processing forms. LiquidOffice offers a host of routing options, including limiting routing to selected approvers, allowing users to select specific individuals who will receive a final copy of the form, sending a copy of the form to the originator upon final approval and allowing approvers to delete attachments. Setting up those options is as simple as clicking a check box and adding names to a Final Copy list and an Approvers list.
The Web Desktop also provides administrators with easy-to-use tools for creating and managing user accounts, database connectivity and reports. LiquidOffice Form Server supports two enterprise databases—Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle Corp. products—for processing form data.
Although LiquidOffice is configured for use with a limited set of managed users, you can buy the Public Access Option, which allows users without accounts to access forms. The option costs $15,000.
Overall, we found LiquidOffice easier to configure and learn than the JetForm solution, and we found the product's integrated form- and user-management features to be especially attractive. The only significant drawback we found to LiquidOffice is the fact that its output is limited to PDF. Without direct output to HTML—and without support yet for WML or WAP—using forms with handheld and other wireless devices is not currently possible.