E-forms and content

These tools eliminate paper, and they can save you a bundle

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 gets spent on the purchase of printed paper forms.

Every year, it costs more than $360 billion to capture the data submitted on paper forms.

For every dollar spent producing a paper form, $30 to $150 is spent processing it, according to Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

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

According to the analysis, creating only six forms with an enterprise-scale forms-building package quickly pays back the in- vestment, while freeing up 26.5 percent of one 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 sending paper forms by postal 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 serious money.

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 participants, e-forms also are beneficial. Clicking is faster than writing, so they take less time to fill out.

For the past few years it has been simple enough to render paper forms electronically in Adobe Portable Document Format or HTML. Once created, however, these forms had to be printed, filled out and manually distributed. Except for the ease of their 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 for both forms design and fill-in to take place electronically.

This was a big step, but two other features were lacking before forms software could attain the status of a full online transaction tool.

First, security measures had to be incorporated. Second, methods for capturing data from 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 had only to be built into enterprise e-forms programs. Soon after came the ability to integrate data gleaned from fill-in software into databases. A new class of enterprise-level forms development software was born.

If you need only a single-user program to help you design pop-up 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.

No nonsense

These, plus 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 straightforward design tools.

If your organization finds it more cost-effective to hand the job of forms building and distribution over 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 look for enterprise-level software that can design, fill and automate your e-forms. Formatta Corp.'s Formatta 6.0 series, for example, has 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 to keep covering all your bases in the future.

Four standards

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

HTML. 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 have already discovered, HTML doesn't always successfully mimic a paper form. In those cases Adobe PDF is usually substituted.

PDF. 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, includes a proprietary form template. With this version, forms can be in PDF or an Extensible Markup Language Data Package and still 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 templates don't support the Extensible Business Reporting Language, Tax XML or other XML schema. Enterprises will have to create their own.

XForms. The W3C recently approved XForms 1.0, an open specification for building standardized XML forms.

The specification is a platform-independent method of creating e-forms that will work with any browser and don't require proprietary software.

InfoPath. 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 have lacked an integrated tool for publishing and gathering form-based information.

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

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