Acrobat challenges InfoPath

I'm not a printer-oriented kind of guy. I own printers, of course, but can go weeks without using them. For more than 20 years I've been creating information flows that rarely, and increasingly never, get rendered onto 8.5 x 11in pages.

I’m not a printer-oriented kind of guy. I own printers, of course, but can go weeks without using them. For more than 20 years I’ve been creating information flows that rarely, and increasingly never, get rendered onto 8.5 x 11in pages.

At the .Net rollout in 2000, Bill Gates used the evocative term “universal canvas” to describe a world in which all data types — text, numbers, vector graphics, media — are represented in a common way using XML and are rendered on to electronic surfaces for viewing and interaction. That universal canvas, which I have long envisioned, knows no 8.5 x 11in boundaries.

I’ve always regarded Adobe’s PDF as an odd creature, neither fish nor fowl. I’m intensely annoyed when I have to view a multicolumn PDF document onscreen. Some monitors rotate into a portrait orientation, but mine — and probably yours — are landscape devices. Every time I scroll from the bottom of column number one to the top of column number one, I taste the worm at the PDF apple’s core.

Even so, I’ve learned much from John Seely Brown’s and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information, and from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Social Life of Paper. These writers have helped me to understand what I see when I survey my office: piles of books, piles of magazines, piles of loose papers. There are deep reasons why we need to keep turning dead trees into tangible documents. So I was delighted to learn, in a recent conversation with Adobe senior product manager Chuck Myers, that the ongoing integration of XML into PDF is about to shift into high gear.

The backstory includes initiatives such as XMP (extensible metadata platform), which embeds XML metadata in PDF files; and tagged PDF, which enables PDF documents to carry the structural information that can be used, for example, to reflow a three-column portrait layout for landscape mode. So far, though, XML data hasn’t been a first-class citizen of the PDF file — especially those PDF files that represent business forms.

Acrobat 5 does support interactive forms. It also has a data interchange format called FDF (forms data format), for which an XML mapping exists. But as Myers wryly observes, “There’s one schema, from Adobe; we hope you like it”. Acrobat 6 blasts that limitation out of the water. It supports arbitrary customer-defined schemas, Myers told me. That’s a huge step forward, and brings Acrobat into direct competition with Microsoft’s forthcoming InfoPath.

Filling in a form and then signing it digitally is an eye-opening experience. It’s more interesting now that the form’s data is schema-controlled and, Myers adds, can flow in and out by way of WSDL-defined SOAP transactions.

The only missing InfoPath ingredient is a forms designer that nonprogrammers can use to map between schema elements and form fields. That’s just what the recently announced Adobe Forms Designer intends to be. I like where Adobe is going. The familiarity of paper forms matters to lots of people. And unless Microsoft’s strategy changes radically, those people are far likelier to have an Adobe reader than an InfoPath client.

Udell is lead analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center.

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