Forms with function

The Lowdown

What are they? E-forms are online versions of paper forms that can be created, designed, filled in and managed completely online.

Why do I need them? The payback in dollars and labor hours saved by organizations using e-forms can be substantial, increasing with greater use. A large organization converting all its paper forms to e-forms can save millions of dollars per year.


What kind do I need? For occasional forms creation or for sending small surveys or bundling popup questionnaires into a Web site, a single-user program or a basic edition of a more expansive program will do. For client-server programs with built-in databases, encryption, digital signatures and other security features, workflow automation and other high-end features, use an enterprise-level program. Some organizations may find it cost-effective to use an e-forms service company, which stores your private forms and data on its server and feeds them back to your organization as required.

Must-know info? Be aware of standards and note whether your program is based on open-systems standards. Is it strong on security, with good support for digital signatures and encryption techniques? What about database support? How sophisticated is its analytical capability? Are strong workflow features available? Is the program fully or only partly XML-compatible?

Saving time, money two good reasons to go paperless

If you need an incentive other than the Government Paperwork Elimination Act to reduce your dependency on paper forms, consider a few facts.

More than 80 percent of all business documents are forms, and research from the Association for Information and Image Management in Silver Spring, Md., indicates that more than $60 billion annually is spent purchasing printed paper forms.

Every year, more than $360 billion is spent capturing the data submitted on paper forms. And for every dollar spent producing a paper form, $30 to $150 is spent processing it, according to Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

Not surprisingly, electronic-forms software manufacturers use these facts and others to promote their products, and the cases they make can be compelling.

ScanSoft Inc., maker of OmniForm 5.0 forms software, has produced a cost analysis showing the benefits of using e-forms, and how the benefits of using e-forms software increases proportionately with the number of forms.

According to the analysis, creating only six forms with an enterprise-scale forms-building package quickly pays back your investment, while freeing up 26.5 percent of an individual's time. More significantly, each additional form created with this type of software could represent a 93 percent savings in cost and productivity, according to the company.

Another cost analysis by ScanSoft concludes that distributing 1,000 digital forms via e-mail, as opposed to traditional mail or hand delivery, frees more than 58 hours of personnel time while generating cost savings in the range of $2,300. Multiply that figure by the thousands or hundreds of thousands that apply to government organizations, and you're getting into some pretty serious money.

Vendor hype? Sure, to an extent. But even if you grade the claims by ScanSoft and other vendors on a curve ? even if you cut their projections by half ? you're still saving oodles of money and time by using a commercial e-form or survey program for your small or large enterprise requirements.

E-forms software has other benefits, too. For one, online and Web survey forms can be modified easily and inexpensively. Templates can be customized and saved. Electronic distribution via Web access and e-mail is easy and inexpensive.

For the past few years, it has been simple enough to create forms electronically by using a document format such as Adobe PDF or HTML. Once created, however, the forms had to be printed, filled out and manually distributed. Other than ease of design, not very much was saved in the way of money, labor or paper.

As the Web developed and as proprietary forms software began to evolve, it became possible to both design and fill out forms electronically.

This was a big step, but two other features were lacking before forms software could attain the status of complete online transaction systems. First, security measures had to be incorporated. Second, methods for capturing data within the forms and automatically entering it into a database had to be developed.

The first problem was solved fairly quickly. Technology for assigning digital signatures to e-mail transmissions already existed and only had to be built into enterprise e-forms software programs. Soon after came the ability to integrate data gleaned from fill-in software into databases. A new class of enterprise-level form development software was born.

If you need a single-user program to help you design popup menus or feedback forms easily and quickly, one of the standalone forms packages listed in this guide, such as CAD & Graphics' $80 Form Tool 5.0 or CGI-Factory.com's $40 Advanced Form/Application Center, should do nicely.

These and the standard, single-user versions of more advanced suites, such as Quask's $49 FormArtist Presto and the $69 standard version of SmartDraw 6.0, are fairly straightforward design tools. With them, you can create online surveys, evaluations, registrations and similar forms and publish them to an HTML file. At this level, don't expect much in the way of database support, although FormTool 5.0 does provide it.

If your organization finds it more cost-effective to hand over the job of forms building and distribution to a third party, check out online forms service programs, such as Benefit Software Inc.'s Forms4Us, Bravenet.com's Email Forms Service and Hostedware Corp.'s Hosted Survey.

At the next level, you should be looking for enterprise-level software that can design, fill and automate your e-forms. Formatta Corp.'s Formatta 6.0 series, for example, includes modules that let you create, convert and distribute e-forms without limitations; view, save, encrypt, submit, sign and e-mail e-forms and attachments; automate your e-forms system and provide encryption and digital signatures.

For all their benefits, it's important to note that, to date, virtually all e-forms applications are proprietary. They work well by themselves, but cannot guarantee that they will cover all your bases in the future.

There are four dominant open-format standards for e-forms today: HTML, Adobe Portable Document Format, the World Wide Web Consortium's XForms and Microsoft Corp.'s InfoPath.

Over the past decade, the HTML open standard has become nearly ubiquitous. But HTML forms lack a number of features required by database and workflow applications. And as most users already have discovered, HTML doesn't always successfully mimic a paper form. In those cases, Adobe PDF is usually substituted.

As the demand for dynamic e-forms grew over the past few years, Adobe added more Web functionality to PDF. Its latest iteration, PDF 6.0, contains a proprietary form template, which can contain rule sets. With this new version, forms cam be deployed in PDF, or as an extensible markup language data package and processed as XML. This lets them be integrated with enterprise applications via available XML tools and Web services.

But according to a report from Gartner Research, there are distinct limits to this approach. PDF 6.0 doesn't create templates that support the Extensible Business Reporting Language, Tax XML or other XML schema. Enterprises will have to create their own.

The W3C recently approved the XForms 1.0 standard, an open standard for building standardized XML forms. The specification is a platform-independent method for creating e-forms that will work with any browser and doesn't require proprietary software.

InfoPath 2003, formerly XDocs and released last month, is Microsoft's entry into the e-forms software fray. Its main advantage will be to Office users who, until now, have lacked an integrated tool for publishing and gathering form-based information.

According to Microsoft, the InfoPath format will support any customer-defined XML applications and integrate with XML Web services. It can be purchased separately for $199 but is bundled in Office 2003.

J.B. Miles of Honolulu writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@starband.net.

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