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The Forms of Marketing

If you want proof that standards are marketing weapons look no further than the current dust up between JetForm and UWI.com.

Forms are valuable precisely because they're boring. They force humans to make textual information predictable so that the computers can do their automated thing with it. And that's also why XML is the perfect meta-standard for forms, since XML enables the documents humans write to be predictable enough for computers to deal with them.

Big JetForm and little UWI.com agree that the marriage between XML and forms is 100% natural (in the sense in which computer-based stuff can be said to be natural). After that, they don't agree on hardly nothin'.

UWI.com a year ago came forth with XFDL, an XML-based standard for expressing forms and submitted it to the W3C. A couple of weeks ago, JetForm (the market share leader in eforms -- by virtue of having bought its major competitor a while ago) came forth with XFA, an XML-based standard for expressing forms and submitted it to the W3C.

I spoke with I spoke with Eric Stevens, Chief Technical Evangelist at JetForm and with Eric Jordan, president of UWI.com, along with Jason Nadeau (senior systems engineer and an articulate techie).

JetForm was on the attack. Since they're late to market with a story about how they'll support XML, they need to tear down the perceived standard leader, XFDL. (Granted, I asked JetForm specifically how their standard differs from UWI.com's.) Eric Stevens of JetForm made the following case, quite convincingly:

XFA provides a finer structure for data. For example, the digital signature on an XFA form can be applied to the separate fields, as opposed to applying only to the entire form. So, when the recipient application gets the form, it can tell which fields are signed.
XFDL assumes (according to Eric) that all users want the same presentation of information; it's a "single-state" spec. XFA lets you include business rules that can hide or show elements based on circumstances. It can also be rendered on a wide variety of devices, so a form that works on your desktop could also work on your CE device.

Powerful story!

The problem is that UWI.com denies every jot and tittle.

Eric Jordan, president of UWI.com, laughs ironically. (At least it sounded ironic to me. It's sometimes hard to tell irony from heartburn over the phone.) When UWI.com launched XFA, he says, the ability to extract data while preserving context was taken for granted, so they decided they would highlight XFDL's unique ability to preserve all of the document-based, presentation information about the form, as required in many legalistic environments.

Now, he says, they''re being criticized for not having the data extraction capabilities.

In particular, the boys of UWI.com say:

"XFDL can be parsed to as fine a level as XFA, and signatures can be attached to any set of fields."
"Individual elements can be extracted with any set of meta-data one wants."
"XFDL enables you include business rules so that, for example, if you click a "capital gains" box on a tax form, a new set of appropriate fields will appear."

Eric Jordan admits that XFA may be less device dependent than XFDL, although even that's not clear, but he emphasizes that XFDL's ability to preserve the document qualities of the form make it a superior format in many environments where that is a requirement.

So, if you need to advance your company's eforms strategy -- to decrease the pain of paper and to increase the integration of your supply chain -- what the !@#$% do you do?

First, you look at the partners who are lining up with each standard. UWI cites Entrust, CommerceOne, Action Technologies, Integrity, Optika, PenOps, VeriSign, GTE, MetaStorm and BlueStone. Jetform cites Entrust, PenOp, Silanis and VeriSign, and they include a juicy quote from Microsoft because XFA should play nicely in the Beast of Redmond's BizTalk environment. UWI.com counters by pointing to their close involvement with Commercenet's eCo framework specification.

Second, you look at the forms software themselves. The standard is just one piece of the strategy. For example, if you decide that one company's standard is more elegant but the other one's forms application software is more useful, then you will decide to go with the lesser of the standards. (Ah, now to make it more complex: Of course, if you go with one because of its software, but the market standardizes on the other's standard, you just screwed yourself.)

Third, and most important, if you can, you wait. You hope either the market will decide or the W3C will issue a spec that integrates the two.

Fourth, you work up a nice head of righteous indignation. Was the multiplication of standards done to help us, the users, or because it made marketing sense? Could JetForm have worked with UWI.com to extend XFDL to meet its needs? Could UWI.com announce that their software will be happy to work with whatever standard rulz?

Sure, but that's not how the standards game is played.

Sigh.

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