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Adobe expands e-forms push

The software maker announces plans for an XML-based electronic forms product that covers much of the same ground as Microsoft's upcoming InfoPath.

Publishing software giant Adobe Systems on Tuesday announced a new electronic forms application that appears to be aimed at Microsoft's upcoming InfoPath product.

The as-yet unnamed product, which Adobe plans to introduce next year, allows companies to create and distribute interactive forms using Adobe's portable document format (PDF) and Extensible Markup Language (XML), the fast-spreading standard behind Web services.

XML support means data from forms designed with the software can be automatically sucked into back-end software, such as corporate databases and customer relationship management (CRM) systems, eliminating the costly data re-entry associated with paper forms.

Microsoft is touting similar advantages for InfoPath, a part of the dramatically revamped Office productivity software line the company plans to introduce in a few months. InfoPath, formerly code-named XDocs, designs XML-based forms and ties them in to back-end software to automate data exchange and delivery.

Key differences in the Adobe product include reliance on PDF, a widespread format that can be read by any device equipped with the free Adobe Reader software. InfoPath forms can be used only by those who buy the application.

"We're combining the XML advantage with the best of PDF as far as document integrity and ubiquity," said Marion Melani, senior product makret manager for Adobe's ePaper division. "When you're conversing system to system, it's just an XML file. But the user gets the full PDF for the visual representation of that document."

Use of the free PDF Reader is particularly important for government offices looking to make greater use of electronic forms, Melani said. "As a government, I can't require you as a citizen to buy a piece of software to communicate with me," she said. "The burden is really on the people doing the forms, and PDF takes care of that."

But InfoPath has the advantage of being tied to Microsoft's equally widespread Word word-processing application, said John Dalton, an analyst for Forrester Research.

"I have a feeling those (Word versus Adobe Reader) are almost red herrings in terms of advantages," he said.

The new Adobe software will also include simple tools for adding XML functions to existing PDF forms. Many financial, government and other institutions use PDF for electronic distribution of forms ultimately intended for printout.

"Companies have thousands of forms already in PDF. Wouldn't it be great to be able to extend those?" said Charles Myers, product manager in Adobe's ePaper division.

Dalton said the Microsoft and Adobe approaches are disparate enough they they're likely to appeal to different markets. PDF forms will be attractive to institutions that have to exchange forms with the public, while InfoPath will be a conduit for streamlining a company's internal and business-to-business processes.

"Health care, government, large government contractors--that's where you're going to see some real opportunities for Adobe to exploit PDF," Dalton said. "Microsoft will be a much less well-defined cornucopia of Intranet and inter-enterprise deployments."

Joshua Duhl, an analyst with research firm IDC, added that a PDF-based will also appeal to organizations with a mixture of operating systems. "Lots of people like to think they're competing head to head, but that's not really the case," he said. "Microsoft is pretty much going to stay within Microsoft environment. PDF is cross-platform."

Laura DiDio, an analyst with research firm The Yankee Group, said both Adobe and Microsoft are promising compelling approaches to electronic forms, but neither is likely to capture immediate attention from cash- and time-strapped IT managers.

"This is not a pressing issue," she said. "IT people are concerned with migration issues, security issues. This stuff is still under the radar, and I think it will be until the economy turns around."

The new forms product marks another step in Adobe's ongoing transition from selling boxed software to offering a mix of desktop and server products. It's also a departure from Adobe's usual reluctance to discuss any new product until a few weeks before it goes on sale.

"When you look at an area where enterprises are making long-term decisions about what direction they want to take with their back-end systems--those are not decisions people are going to make in a 30-day time frame," Myers said. "They're taking more of a five-year view, and we feel they ought to know what Adobe has in store for them."

Dalton says prerelease hype is an inevitable part of the business software market. "I think they just got fatigued of being the only player out there that wasn't doing preannouncements," he said.