At a recent forms management conference, the comment was made that, after approximately 30 years of existence, the electronic forms industry has not progressed very far. It seems that most forms available on the public Internet are still print-on-demand or fill-and-print. There are a few intelligent electronic forms and even fewer applications based on electronic forms. Enterprise-enabled forms with built-in workflow are practically non-existent (though that is changing for mobile forms).

Internal electronic forms applications are quite different and more advanced; yet, even these “inside-the-firewall” forms have not reached their potential as envisioned by the early pioneers in electronic forms software development. It seems that adoption of more sophisticated electronic forms just hasn’t happened on any wide scale.

It has been interesting to be involved with e-forms over the years. For the most part, e-forms development has been hampered by several factors (in my opinion), including lack of involvement by the large software developers, poor marketing strategies, underfunded development companies, user resistance, slowly changing legal and regulatory environments, signature requirements and the complexity of electronically signing forms, lack of forms standards and turf battles between departments within large companies.

All that is beginning to change. In recent years, three companies have begun to dominate the e-forms marketplace: Adobe Systems, Microsoft and IBM. Each is an interesting story, and I suspect that none of these companies actually consider themselves to be a part of the forms management industry. Of course, several small companies also participate in this space and the competitive arena is ever-changing.

The emergence of the "Big Three" has added a lot of credibility to the electronic forms space and has greatly elevated the visibility of forms management as an important function within large organizations. The ready availability of forms design software and the addition of workflow features proves the demand for these products. It also points out the need for professional design skills and the need for dedicated forms designers. A detailed look at the forms available within many companies dramatically points out that just because forms design software is available, it doesn’t make everyone a forms designer. Ineffective forms design results in poor forms that do not efficiently support a workflow process. The software contains many capabilities that are not well understood by casual users.

Creating forms that are connected to databases and that provide effective workflow mapping is difficult even with the powerful products available. Of course, several smaller forms software developers still exist and thrive in the e-forms space. Many others have dropped out or are struggling. Competing with the "Big Three" creates significant challenges. Perhaps, the biggest challenge is the propensity for information technology (IT) to get more involved with software selection, which is then dictated to the forms management department.

Large IT departments exercise almost complete control over this software selection, and they control access to databases, networks and servers for deployment of electronic forms. Most forms management departments have little direct authority over selection of the tools they must use for e-forms

development. The "Big Three" dominate within the IT departments, so selling into this environment by small players is very difficult.

Nonetheless, several companies do thrive today, including Amgraf (OneForm Designer Plus, Forms Portal and related products), Cerenade (Forms Converter, Forms Designer, Forms Server, Forms Manager, Forms Filler and Forms Output Manager) and Cardiff (LiquidOffice). These companies each offer specific competencies and features that make their solutions unique. Some of these companies have been around for many years, spanning the entire electronic forms history. Each has specific strengths and marketing strategies.

Smaller companies tend to be more nimble and can react more quickly to specific user requirements. They can offer custom development services directly and add features to their products based on specific customer requirements. They offer flexible pricing, support and maintenance.

Looking to the future, electronic forms deployment should grow and at an increasing rate. Many barriers are falling as users accept electronic forms, systems are improved to support deployment, business processes are changing to accommodate e-forms and legal and regulatory environments are evolving in favor of technology. We know that most users want e-forms and are pushing IT and forms management to develop more open, easy-to-use and more powerful forms. The good news is that rising demand means increased opportunities for all participants. The presence and marketing muscle of the "Big Three" helps increase overall demand and deployment.

Standards are also evolving for electronic forms, which should make compatibility less of an issue going forward. Considerable work still needs to be done in this area, but progress is evident. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has published a standard called the XForm Standard. While the "Big Three" are not uniformly lined up in support of this standard, it enables smaller companies to overcome a major objection they frequently encounter regarding their longevity. Looking at the past, many organizations are concerned about which companies will still be around in the future. Standards help alleviate this concern.

Since every organization in the world uses forms, we can be assured that demand will not abate. As more users move to mobile solutions, electronic forms will both increase in total demand and evolve to more sophisticated products and solutions. There is plenty of room for both big and smaller participants.

Ray Killam is the president of Essociates Group, a firm that provides forms training and consulting services. Follow him on Twitter @rkillam0509 or contact him at rkillam@essociatesgroup.com.

 

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