Adobe to retool PDF forms

Adobe Systems Inc., whose PDF files have long been the document format of choice for many federal agencies, is developing an advanced version designed to make conducting online transactions easier.

The new PDFs will contain data that permits users of the free Adobe Reader software to do more with the files than they can now.

For example, users will be able to download forms, fill them out and save them with the added data. They will be able to attach notes to PDFs and sign them with digital signatures.

Adobe will be making PDFs smarter, too. Some PDFs will be able to add and subtract, which will help customers making purchases or payments. Others will contain data that automatically fills in information on forms, such as names, addresses and identification numbers.

The changes are intended to make PDFs more useful in e-government and e-commerce, according to officials at Adobe.

At present, the free Acrobat Reader permits users to view and print PDF files and to fill out and submit PDF forms online, but they cannot save the completed forms.

"That's a common first step" in e-government and e-commerce, but a limited one, said Greg Pisocky, Adobe's business development manager for government systems. With Acrobat Reader, customers and constituents can view documents and forms on their computers, but must print them, fill them out, then mail or fax them to a com.pany or an agency to make a purchase or apply for a benefit.

Adobe officials hope to make that whole process electronic. While that's already possible with Adobe Acrobat 5.0, the software costs $250. "We can't impose the burden of forcing citizens to buy software to do business with the government," Pisocky said during a demonstration of the new PDFs March 21.

Because more than 400 million copies of the free Acrobat Reader software have been downloaded, the company has decided to expand the capabilities of Acrobat Reader for certain PDFs.

New versions of PDFs will contain encoded information that grants the Acrobat Reader software the right to perform functions with that file that the Reader ordinarily cannot perform, said Adobe spokesman John Cristofano.

The new PDFs are still "experimental," Adobe officials stress. "We have not announced a new product and there is no time frame for when it will be available," Cristofano said.

But Pisocky said, "It's our vision of the future."

Company officials are mindful of the approaching deadline set by the Government Paperwork Elimination Act. By Oct. 21, 2003, federal agencies must give the public the option of submitting and receiving information in electronic form "when practicable." The ability to do more with PDFs may offer just the features needed to make the public more comfortable with e-government transactions, said Paul Showalter, a senior technical publishing specialist with the Internal Revenue Service.

A key advantage to Adobe's enhanced PDFs is that they would enable taxpayers to downloaded tax forms and then fill them out off-line, said Showalter, whose job includes developing electronic tax forms. More than 2,000 IRS forms and informational documents are online.

Being able to save electronic tax forms and then call them up repeatedly to work on them over time "has been the No. 1 most requested feature," Showalter said. But that's not possible with today's PDFs and Acrobat Reader.

An alternative, having taxpayers fill out their tax forms online, has not proven popular, he said. People worry about how the data they enter might be used before they have completed the forms.

Bruce Chizen, president and chief executive officer of Adobe, said an advantage of PDFs is that the electronic versions of documents look the same as the paper versions, making it easier for those familiar with the paper forms to switch to the electronic versions.

PDFs can also be used on a wide variety of platforms, from various kinds of computers to handheld devices and, soon, wireless phones.


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