Adobe enhances PDF forms

Adobe is introducing advanced versions of the software many agencies use to create and read electronic forms

A year ahead of the law that requires federal agencies to give citizens the option of submitting applications, reports and other forms electronically, Adobe Systems Inc. is introducing advanced versions of the software many government agencies use to create and read electronic forms.

With it comes a new version of the free Adobe Acrobat Reader that will enable PDF users to download, fill out, attach notes to, edit, save, digitally sign, transmit or e-mail the electronic forms.

The new software is aimed at helping government agencies comply with the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, which takes effect Oct. 21, 2003.

The act, which was passed in 1998, is intended to foster convenience and cost savings through e-government. The new version of PDF takes a substantial step in that direction but is not the whole solution, said Payton Smith, a technology analyst at the market research firm Input.

The new PDF "is definitely forward progress," Smith said. "But in terms of being able to just plug it in and say you've got a secure e-filing solution, that's not the case."

For agencies interested in more versatile PDFs, there is new software called Adobe Document Server for Reader Extensions. It enables document authors to add functions to PDF files so they can be filled out, saved, edited, signed, transmitted and so on.

For document users, such as taxpayers and compliance report filers, the essential new piece is Acrobat Reader 5.1. This more advanced version of the widely used reader makes it possible to use the new PDFs. And like its predecessors, it is free.

While developing the new software, Adobe worked closely with the Agriculture Department and the Internal Revenue Service to ensure that it met the needs of government users, said Adobe spokeswoman Sydney Sloan.

"The biggest benefit is being able to use forms off-line," said David Pfaffenberger, a Nevada-based information technology team leader with the USDA. "That's what the public wants to do," but until now, it couldn't be done with PDF files.

In June, three USDA branches — the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Rural Development — put 250 forms online. Although the move made it much more convenient to get the forms needed for filing conservation compliance reports or loan applications, the system requires users to remain online to fill out the forms and print them.

With PDFs now, some forms can only be printed and then filled out on paper. Others can be filled out on a computer, but then must be printed out or the added information will be lost.

In either case, completing a transaction usually requires physically delivering a paper document or fax.

The USDA has enabled some users to go through a registration process, receive an identification name and a password, and then fill out and submit completed forms electronically.

The new version of PDF could simplify that process. It enables users to download forms, fill them out off-line, change them, save them and file them electronically or send them via e-mail. The Adobe software even permits a rudimentary electronic signature, Sloan said.

But the USDA is not ready to move quite that fast. "We're still evaluating it and trying to see how we could implement it," Pfaffenberger said. There are still unresolved questions about legally acceptable digital signatures and methods for demonstrating that documents have not been altered after being signed, he said.

Those issues must be resolved before the new PDFs are acceptable for such uses as grant awards and loan guarantees. But being able to fill in PDF forms off-line is a major improvement, Pfaffenberger said.

The new document server also creates smart PDF documents — some will be able to add and subtract numbers; others will automatically fill some form fields with information that has already been entered elsewhere, such as names and addresses, or remind users when needed information has been left out.

Adobe officials say that such features will reduce the number of mistakes in applications and other forms, thus cutting the cost to the government of having workers correct them. And enabling individuals and businesses to submit forms electronically is expected to reduce the expense of having clerks type in data from forms that have been downloaded, filled out, printed and mailed.

The company is also preparing to announce a group of new enterprise-level software products, which are due out by the end of the year.

***

More practical PDFs

Adobe Systems Inc.'s newest PDF software will enable users to do more with electronic forms. New capabilities include:

* Downloading and saving files to work off-line.

* Collaboration tools such as attached notes, highlighting and strike-throughs.

* Digital signatures.

* Electronic or e-mail submission of completed forms.

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