Application builders in the sky
Do-it-yourself online tools are quickly moving beyond the creation of forms and spreadsheets to database-driven Web appsFollow @peterwayner
The vendors compete boffering additional features to make their forms more sophisticated. FormAssembly, for instance, now lets you add CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) protection that forces the user to prove they're not out to get Sarah Connor by reading some oddly tangled mess of words. It also has a nice collection of CSS style sheets for dressing up the forms in the Form Garden. All are distributed under Creative Commons licenses.
Payment integration is one of the neater aspects of all three of these tools. JotForm, for instance, supports six different payment mechanisms, including PayPal, Google Checkout, and ClickBank. Once someone fills out a form, they are forwarded to the payment gateway. The money received shows up in the same table as the information from the form. This is a simple way to take prepayment for events.
While all of these systems are meant to be glorified form processors, they can be surprisingly useful if you're willing to adapt. Most interaction on corporate Web sites involves pure data entry, and that's all these tools do. Programmers might laugh that JotForm categorizes adding a star rating as a "Power Tool," but these form processors aren't playing to fancy programmers. They're looking for business folks tired of hoping programmers will answer their e-mail.
It's not really possible to do tricky customization of the interaction with these sites, but I don't know if much is necessary. You can't write a script that will examine the incoming data and look for special exceptions, but there's no reason why most of this can't be done off-line with some post-processing. The majority of the basic tools for stopping data format errors are built in.
Beyond the sheets
Whereas Wufoo, FormAssembly, and JotForm all began as sophisticated replacements for paper forms, other tools started as replacements for desktop spreadsheets. Although the tabular mechanisms began as tools for the accountants who want to play with the numbers, these tools are often used as a simple tabular database. Zoho, the online application company, even offers three distinct solutions that tackle managing rows and rows of data in slightly different ways. (See our review of Zoho Writer and Zoho Sheet, along with other Office alternatives.)
Zoho DB is mainly an online spreadsheet that can be shared among users. Its direct cousin is Zoho Sheet, an online spreadsheet that's quite similar. While each user can input data, there's no form feature that would allow others to input their row directly, as in Wufoo and company. However, the reporting and manipulation tools are more sophisticated, offering the opportunity to pivot the data and rearrange it in useful ways.
If you want more sophisticated interaction with users, Zoho Creator is said to be an "application building environment" with a database hidden deep inside. The most notable feature is a scripting language that lets you construct special responses to the forms people fill out. This ability is lacking in the other form processing tools, and it can be quite helpful for dealing with the odd responses that people include. If your application can't let this wait for a human to post-process the data, then you turn to it. Zoho cautions users that Zoho Creator's database operations aren't as sophisticated as Zoho DB, and the company hopes to merge the two platforms eventually.