The transition from paper to electronic forms seems like a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to abolish the anachronism of paper forms in capturing and relaying business-critical information? Of course, centuries of bureaucracy yield habits that are hard to break. In December, for example, the federal government ignored a $17 million grant application from New Hampshire because, according to a state official, “some pages had margins narrower than one inch.”
E-forms can’t do anything about boneheaded business rules. But they provide a more accurate, intuitive replacement for paper forms than plain HTML forms or antiseptic data entry screens — and in the latest e-forms software, they wrap captured data in XML format. These products also provide design tools that allow you to build attractive XML-enabled forms quickly and easily.
Microsoft’s XML-oriented InfoPath, which shipped with Office 2003 in October, is now deployed and in use. Adobe plans to ship a beta version of its PDF- and XML-oriented forms designer in the first quarter of this year. And e-forms veterans such as PureEdge and Cardiff, whose offerings are built on an XML core, are lining up behind XForms, an e-forms specification that became an official W3C recommendation in October 2003.
The XML Denominator
Common to all these vendors’ approaches is the use of XML as the bridge between applications that gather data from end-users and the back-office systems that absorb that data. Three factors contribute to the unanimous choice of XML:
Universal data exchange Web services are only the tip of the XML iceberg. InfoPath, for example, can talk to SOAP end points, but it can also post raw XML data to an ordinary Web server or send it as e-mail. In general, if you want to move a package of structured information from point A to point B, you’d be crazy not to leverage the XML machinery that’s freely available and widely deployed on all platforms.
Declarative validation Enterprise applications depend on clean data; you’ve got to scrub it before it enters your systems. There’s no avoiding the use of procedural code for scrubbing, but the more validation you can handle declaratively, the better. All the emerging solutions rely on W3C XML Schema for that purpose. Support for XML Schema in e-forms software is a watershed event.
Document orientation Forms can present flat lists of name/value pairs, hierarchical and irregularly shaped structures, or — typically — a combination of these styles. XML’s roots in publishing make it a good fit for modeling the documentlike qualities of forms as well as their databaselike qualities.
The Paper Legacy
Within this broad XML consensus, there are differences that reflect the legacies of Microsoft, Adobe, the e-forms vendors, and the customers they serve (see “E-forms Line-by-Line,” page 54). The relationship of e-forms solutions to printed forms, and to the processes that surround them, is a major source of differentiation. For all their inefficiency as data-gathering instruments, printed forms are highly engineered information displays. People who scan and process forms often rely on their layout and typography, which is why some industries — insurance, for example — standardize the look and feel of forms as well as their content.