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Is Adobe Targeting Microsoft's InfoPath?

The integration of XML with forms technologies holds strong potential for the enterprise, especially in industries like insurance and health care which make heavy use of forms. The emerging technologies promise significant increases in both efficiency and accuracy, as they allow organizations to capture data directly from forms and feed it into backend databases, where business processes can be applied to it to automate workflow.

Microsoft committed to capturing the nascent market early on and will deliver a core application, dubbed InfoPath, with the Microsoft Office 2003 Professional Enterprise Edition, slated for release this summer. Now Adobe Systems has thrown its hat into the ring, unveiling plans to develop new form design software that will allow users to deploy forms in Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) or in an XML Data Package (XDP) as desired.

So is Adobe trying to take the game to Microsoft? Not necessarily.

The efforts of both companies will support organizations with the ability to define business logic and incorporate both existing and user-defined schemas. User-defined schemas allow organizations to create XML vocabularies specific to the needs of their verticals, or to adhere to cross-industry standards.

At first blush, the two technologies appear similar, in that they both are designed to help customers better tap the largest data repositories they own: the actual set of documents organizations create every day.

"This is a database which is perpetually growing and always underused," Jean Paoli, co-creator of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) XML specification and Microsoft's XML Architect, told internetnews.com in April. "With the documents in XML, it is easy to mine, reuse and manage the data."

But while the two technologies have some similarities, they are not the same. In fact, they will address two different markets.

"In terms of the grand scheme of content generation and content management and things of that nature, there's a lot of comparison between InfoPath and Adobe," Bobby Moore, product manager with InfoPath at Microsoft, told internetnews.com, based on the limited information Adobe has released to date. More will become apparent when the product, expected to be a stand-alone, goes to beta in the fourth quarter.

But whereas Adobe's plans for a PDF/XML Form designer (the product has yet to be named) are geared toward a broad reach scenario in which an organization publishes a form which could then be downloaded by an end-user anywhere, filled in and submitted back to the publisher, Moore said InfoPath is aimed squarely at the knowledge worker and small group collaboration.

"The broad reach scenario where you're posting a form somewhere and you don't know what type of machine [the end user is] running is not actually a scenario that InfoPath is designed for," Moore said.

However, while InfoPath is not designed for such a scenario, that doesn't mean that Microsoft doesn't support it. "Visual Studio .NET allows you to design all kinds of Web forms that are schema-compliant," he said.

Classic InfoPath usage scenarios include sales reports, procurement reports, human resources reports and inventory reports. In these scenarios, InfoPath allows a form to grow as needed, giving users the ability to add fields if necessary, spell check, and add images, while also supplying the validation functionality of forms. The forms all adhere to an XML schema , which the organization uses to define all of the XML tags used in the forms.

Once the form goes into an organization's database, other applications can extract it for different purposes. A user could open the file in Excel and run comparisons with other forms, allowing side-by-side sales report comparisons, for example.

Meanwhile, Adobe's usage scenario is different. As an example, a financial institution can use the technology to make loan applications available online. Anyone with a free Acrobat Reader can download the form, fill it in, and submit the form electronically to the institution. The file can then be integrated directly into the institution's existing loan processing system.

"Adobe Reader really is a universal client," Maryann Maloney, senior product manager with Adobe, told internetnews.com. "The Reader works both inside and outside the firewall." She added, "We're providing the capability to work outside the work group and outside the firewall."

Ronald Schmelzer, senior analyst with XML research firm ZapThink said he feels organizations may find that InfoPath and Adobe's eventual offering may be complementary.

"Adobe and Microsoft, while going after similar users (the non-technical 'information worker') are really solving different problems and coming at it from two different approaches -- each leveraging their own strengths," Schmelzer said. "Adobe's product is aimed at the universe of people who are trying to automate the process of filling in forms that must then be submitted to some automated, electronic process. This document-automation, workflow-oriented bent is clearly illustrated in their desire for the forms to look and act like traditional PDF forms (or even paper-based forms) while having advanced functionality that is primarily hidden from the user who is filling out the form. In essence, Adobe is trying to smarten-up the forms submission and human workflow-oriented processes without having to re-educate the user.

"Microsoft is also going after information workers who are involved in forms and workflow-intensive tasks, but the goal and methods are different. Rather than trying to turn Word or Excel into the automation tool of choice, Microsoft has opted to create an entirely new class of dynamic document-oriented product called InfoPath. InfoPath aims to provide a totally new document experience, rather than trying to maintain the same interface and method of interaction. InfoPath turns the 'static document' on its head by allowing parts of the document to change dynamically as users enter information and as a result can turn an ordinary document into a front-end to complicated CRM and ERP systems. Basically, for Microsoft, the document becomes the interface rather than for Adobe, the document becomes the front-end for other interfaces.

"The difference is subtle, but I think in the end, users will realize that the Adobe and Microsoft products solve different parts of the overall puzzle and will use them in different ways in much the same way that PDF and Word documents co-exist peacefully in today's enterprise."