by January 2, 2003 0 comments

Adobe Acrobat’s Portable Document Format, better known as PDF, has been one of the most popular ways of distributing tamper-proof documents, which look and print the same way, across many platforms. Another well, but lesser known, use for this format, however, is as online forms. 

Acrobat files or PDFs can be used to fill up forms such as income-tax returns and license-application forms by just downloading them, opening them in Acrobat Reader, filling in the information in the appropriate places and taking a printout of them. This does away with having to fill in these forms by hand after printing them out. 

Microsoft’s XDocs
Microsoft’s new XDocs is set to take this to the next level. XDocs is meant to be a part of the next
version of MS Office, codenamed Office 11, which is currently in  beta 1. XDocs will debut as a form designer as well as reader that will let creators
design forms quickly and users use them easily.

Traditional form entry is a bit painful–you have to tab to different fields,manually check spellings and values, etc. Xdocs, on the other hand, lets users work with forms in a very familiar environment–that of a word-processing tool such as MS Word.

Users can type their information into a form as if they were composing a new document and have all the features that they are used to, such as auto correct and spell check.

This structure as well as the data of the forms is stored in XML format (which is where the X in XDocs comes from, of course). This means that the data and the schema both can be used to post back to a server such as SQL Server or even MS Exchange. An organization can thus quickly build forms according to its needs and have the data posted back or published in whatever final format it wants it to be in. 

This allows for immense flexibility. Imagine that a salesperson makes a certain number of salescalls in a day and writes a report (based on a particular form, but that works like a normal word document) at the end of each day. The XDocs that he creates is posted back to the server where it resides. When the sales manager wishes to write another report of the total sales in a month, the new XDocs template that he would use would automatically pick up the relevant information from the other sales XDocs and give him the data in the correct place. The manager simply types in the other text and saves the form again.
This is, of course, a very simplified view of the process as envisioned by the XDocs team. Though Beta 1 of Office 11 is out, XDocs is not a part of it; it is expected to be a part of Beta 2. There is also some speculation about it being available as a separate application outside of the main office suite as well. It would be very interesting to see the progress of this new application, which is being touted as a PDF killer.

Adobe’s PDF
Adobe, too, is getting ready to take on Microsoft. Acrobat 5.0 already has much of this functionality. PDF forms can already be used to enter and submit forms online. You can even script certain events in it to make it connect to databases and manage a process. 

Although PDF does have the biggest market share in tamper-proof documents, the above functionality has not been utilized much. This is where Microsoft is attacking them. Adobe, of course, has announced that a new version of Acrobat (Version 6.0) will contain all the features that Xdocs has. No information about this release is available on the Acrobat site as yet, though.

The bottom line is that Adobe already has a major market share in terms of books and documents. Many plug-ins and even free programs allow you to create and view PDF files. However, it has the disadvantage of not being recognized as a format that allows online form submission as well as being an “add-on.”

XDocs, when released, will be a part of MS Office. This means that the creation and usage of online forms will be easy and intuitive as well as familiar to all users who have used any of the MS Office suite applications before–which is most of them! And XDocs does seem poised to be a major player in the online forms arena. So, keep an eye out for the next release of MS

Vinod Unny is a Technology Consultant with Enterprise InfoTech

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