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The government has hundreds of thousands of forms available in Adobe Portable Document Format. But the vast majority of them can only be completed if they're printed out. There's no way for most of them'especially forms targeted to citizens'to be submitted electronically.

In fact, the only forms that most citizens can fill out and return electronically right now are their tax returns'and then only through the use of proprietary software.

That's starting to change. Electronic forms software is being used within agencies and, in some cases, by businesses and citizens interacting with government agencies, to cut paper out of the loop.

Using Adobe Acrobat software or other desktop applications, or in some cases a standard Web browser, people can fill out a form and submit it securely without printing.

On the back end, server applications are now making it possible to capture the data inside those forms directly, and route the documents themselves through agency workflows that are devoid of paper.

The problem is that most of these paperless processes aren't easy to build and deploy. Some are extremely expensive, and others require the work of talented developers and systems integrators to plug the right pieces together.

The good news'and the bad news'is that there's a great deal of consolidation going on in the e-forms market, promising better integration but fewer choices.

If any common computing technology has been driven more by government requirements than electronic form-filling software, I can't think of it. The Government Paperwork Elimination Act has driven government agencies' adoption of forms software over the past decade. And despite a lot of consolidation among e-forms vendors, the technology continues to advance, now entering the realm of electronic commerce and e-government.

Electronic forms have come a long way since the early 1990s. Then, forms software generally made it possible to print from an electronic template a completed paper form for submittal'if you were lucky. Some forms systems were even specific to a particular brand and make of laser printer.

All that changed with the arrival of Adobe's PDF file format and Acrobat software. Anyone could print a form. But Acrobat initially was a step backward in e-form evolution because it was at first a print-and-fill tool. You had to print the form and then fill it out manually.

Still, PDF made Adobe the dominant force in the e-forms market almost overnight.

The next step in the process was fill-and-print, which let a user fill out a form in a client application or within a Web browser via a plug-in, and print it for submission. This is still the most common approach to e-forms in government-to-citizen applications as well as within agencies. In some cases, alternatively, the form can be saved and
e-mailed when a signature is not required, or the e-mail includes a digital signature.

ScanSoft Inc.'s OmniForms is a popular fill-and-print system, used throughout the federal government. Adobe's entries in this category are the latest full release of Acrobat and a half-step between Acrobat and the free Acrobat reader called Acrobat Approval.

The Agriculture Department uses its eForms, based on OmniForms, to deliver nearly all of its forms online for its Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development programs. The forms can be filled in a Web browser'through the use of a browser plug-in'printed and submitted. The District Court for the Western District of Arkansas also uses OmniForms software, as well as Adobe PDF.

Full online transactions

The latest products of e-forms evolution'full online transactions'began finding their way into the federal market last year. Software in this class not only lets users submit forms over the Web with digital signatures, but can capture the data within the forms and enter it into a database. Some of these applications also provide workflow routing of documents after they are submitted.

'That's the future trend: fill online, submit, digitally sign and have it integrate with back-end systems for data capture for whatever the back-end workflow is,' said Julie McEntee, director of product marketing for Adobe's ePaper group.

One of the key technologies in this new wave of e-forms is the Extensible Markup Language. XML allows data to be stored in its original form and makes managing documents easier.

Accelio Corp., originally known as JetForms Corp., was an early innovator in full online forms technology. The Defense Department has used its Accelio Capture Suite to create online forms usable in any browser. In April, Adobe acquired Accelio.

ScanSoft also offers a full online version of its OmniForm product, called OmniForm Premium. Even though it offers data capture to a number of database formats, it doesn't support XML as a data format out of the box; that requires some development work.

Obviously, digital signatures are a key element of fully electronic forms. Public-key infrastructure vendors Entrust Inc. of Addison, Texas, and ValiCert Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., integrate their services with several e-forms applications. Entrust, for instance, works with Accelio and OmniForms Premium; the company even markets Accelio through its e-government unit.

Another company, PureEdge Solutions Inc., offers software called Internet Commerce System, which creates and manages secure e-forms with XML. The Air Force recently chose PureEdge for a pilot e-forms program. The company claims Internet Commerce System is the first enforceable XML replacement for paper forms, meaning its forms offer digital signatures and nonrepudiation features that make them the legal equivalent of a signed paper document.

The Air Force has about 14,000 print-and-fill e-forms, which will be converted into fully interactive, XML e-forms as part of the project, being managed by systems integrator Enterprise Information Management of Rosslyn, Va.

Acrobat's next act

Adobe is busy considering what to do with Accelio, and how to integrate it with its Acrobat products. McEntee said Accelio will most likely gain support for data capture from PDF files. And Adobe will likely beef up the integration of XML and Acrobat.

In the meantime, McEntee said, the company relies mostly on systems integrators to build e-forms systems with Acrobat and integration tools.

'Acrobat can be used as a form client,' she said, 'and it does have some scripting and validation capabilities. But we didn't build it as a forms designer. It's targeted at the out-of-the-box workgroup.'

That's why the Accelio acquisition was so important to Adobe. The company might have played a major role in creating a standard that has driven government forms online, but it can't count on a proprietary file format to keep it on top in a standards-driven market.

Kevin Jonah, a Maryland network manager, writes about computer technology.

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