Adobe adds bar codes to PDF forms

Adobe Systems expands on its efforts to promote PDF as a format for electronic forms with new technology for adding bar codes. Early adopters include the IRS.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
3 min read
Adobe Systems is set to expand its electronic forms with new capabilities for adding bar codes to forms based on the company's portable document format.

The technology, announced Monday, will allow faster processing of forms ultimately intended for printing. Early backers include the Internal Revenue Service, which will experiment with adding bar code capacity to several PDF-based tax forms this year.

Adobe also announced the release of a test version of Adobe Designer, a new product announced last year for creating forms that combine PDF and XML (Extensible Markup Language), the fast-growing standard for exchanging data between disparate computing systems.

Electronic forms have become a key strategic focus for Adobe as the company tries to expand PDF, now commonly used to electronically exchange documents, into a flexible container for exchanging business data.

One of Adobe's key differentiators from purely electronic forms competitors, such as Microsoft's InfoPath, is PDF's ability to accommodate both digital and printed matter.

The new bar code features are based on growing interactive capabilities that can be included in PDF forms. Forms designers will be able to use Adobe Designer or planned plug-ins for Acrobat Professional, the company's high-end PDF authoring package, to add bar code fields to documents, said Dan Baum, entrepreneur-in-residence for Adobe and developer of the new capabilities.

Recipients of a PDF form fill it out on their PC using the free Adobe Reader, which will also get a bar code plug-in, with the space allotted for the bar code automatically filled in as data is entered. A single bar code can represent up to 2,000 characters of data.

When finished, the form is printed out. The recipient uses a scanning device or fax machine to read the bar code, sending the results to a server running decoding software being developed by Adobe, Baum said. The server then feeds data into a corporate database or other backend systems.

The Acrobat and Adobe Reader plug-ins, as well as the decoding server, all are planned for delivery in the second half of 2004.

Baum said bar codes will allow companies to get information from paper forms into databases faster and more accurately. "We'd like to see people doing all their workflows completely electronically, but companies are at different stages when it comes to getting rid of paper," he said. "Customers who are using paper systems need a bridge for doing things electronically. This gets them started."

Paul Showalter, senior publishing analyst for the IRS, said the tax agency is looking at bar codes to help transition tax forms from paper to electronic delivery.

"For us, the best alternative is electronic filing," Showalter said. "But we realize we're always going to have some amount of paper coming in that needs to be processed, and we want to make that as efficient as we can...With the bar codes, the form is pretty much processed the second it's scanned."

The IRS will use a pilot version of the bar code technology this year on three specialized business tax forms, with an eye toward expanding it to more common forms in following years. "A lot of that will depend on how the pilot works," Showalter said.

Baum said the bar code products should pay for themselves within a year or less for most customers by speeding the collection of data and eliminating the costly error-checking required when paper forms are scanned with optical character recognition (OCR) technology.

"OCR is an improvement over doing it completely manually, but it's prone to errors," he said. "OCR is trying to interpret marks on a page designed for humans to read. Bar codes are designed from the ground up to be machine-readable."