Beyond The Standard Form
Advances in unstructured forms, open standards, and wireless processing can help VARs increase their share of an existing customer's IT budget and win over new customers.
Many VARs tell me that as more end users become familiar with the benefits of forms processing, proving the cost justification is less of a challenge than it once was. However, there are still some customer sites whose needs are so specialized or complex that a traditional application just won't meet their requirements. In some cases, the resistance is based on the number and variety of forms they deal with. In others, it is an accuracy and accessibility issue. Vendors are responding with improvements to unstructured forms processing technology, adoption of open standards, and mobile applications.
Solutions For Unstructured Documents Are Shaping Up
"There's been a lot of talk about processing invoices and other unstructured forms, and slowly but surely, we've seen growing interest among OEMs and end users," says William Boersing, VP of North American sales for Mitek Systems, Inc. (San Diego), a vendor of automated document recognition technology. Instead of requiring templates, unstructured forms processing uses keywords and other elements to identify pertinent data such as invoice numbers and remittance amounts. One shortcoming of this technology has been that the throughput isn't as fast as template-driven forms processing because the application has to search the entire document and then make judgement calls. To speed the processing, some vendors have begun to incorporate automatic form identification, which allows the software to recognize forms it has dealt with in the past.
"Automatic form identification is really a complementary technology to unstructured forms processing," stresses Boersing. "It can look for certain attributes such as logos or layout and classify documents that way. Another possibility is that it could look for zones based on color or keyword." For instance, many companies highlight the amount due on the invoice, and color recognition could be used to identify that piece of data. Alternately, color coding could be used to route documents to verifiers or departments.
Forms processing software can also perform preprocessing like rotating, cropping, and cleanup. "There's good firmware [preprocessing functions built into the scanner] out there and some clearly stand out," says Boersing. "Preprocessing is much more robust as a complete API [application programming interface] within a software package that is optimized for cleaning documents while retaining data. Scanner applications probably can't do character by character rebuilding, for instance." While this technology is advantageous for all forms processing applications, it could be even more crucial in an unstructured application where thousands of different forms of varying quality come through a single system.
Forms processing VARs already have a strong presence in verticals such as healthcare. Improving the accuracy of ICR (intelligent character recognition) technology could help VARs move into other vertical markets that have historically been resistant to the technology. Boersing points to a Mitek customer with a wholesale lockbox application, which processes and tracks B2B payments. When problems such as lopping off the tops or bottoms of letters and dealing with dot matrix printing were addressed with preprocessing software, throughput improved dramatically. "These improvements will make the ROIs and references much stronger and could represent a significant opportunity for resellers in the financial market. As those customers get exposed to new applications, we see a real promise for our resellers in wholesale and retail lockboxes, which are usually keystroke applications in many banks." Similar applications would be commercial check and payroll processing such as for large utilities where high volume represents high potential revenue from licensing fees, click charges, and high-end hardware sales.
Gentlemen, Pick Your (Recognition) Engines
The emphasis on open standards by a number of forms processing vendors is more good news for VARs who have challenging client sites, according to Courtney Rand, sales director for A2iA (New York), which offers ICR software. The accessible APIs allow VARs to switch or supplement the existing recognition engine for specialized uses. "The standard recognition engines are effective for most general uses," says Rand. "But adding a specialized engine that is engineered for cursive or unconstrained text can make a big difference for some customers."
An example of unconstrained text is a line on a warranty card where there are no boxes as guides. To further complicate processing of this kind of document, the data is in cursive rather than hand print. If speed is an issue, the volume is high, and the number of exceptions unacceptable, a VAR might be able to address those pain points with a specialized engine. Vendors who adopt open standards make it easier for VARs to create these customized solutions.
Instead of replacing the existing engine, VARs could use a specialized engine as a supplement. The two engines could "vote" on questionable input, improving accuracy and reducing exceptions. "Custom modules and add-in recognition kits are easy ways to add value, but they aren't just plug and play," Rand warns. Integration expertise is needed to write the necessary vocabularies and parameters.
Wireless Takes Forms Out Of The Office, Across The Enterprise
"What we're trying to do is take forms processing out of the department and sell it to the enterprise," says Troy Mickle, marketing director for forms processing vendor Top Image Systems (TiS) (Carlsbad, CA). "The sales cycle is just as long for either one, and the margin is higher in the enterprise because the solution goes out to all the users." One way TiS plans to drive enterprise adoption is through the use of mobile solutions that allow not just data entry, but also data retrieval. For instance, a business can take an order and register it on an iPac or other handheld device. That order can immediately register with inventory and billing applications on a server, and verification and feedback can be quickly returned to the handheld.
Enterprise applications such as this one are supported by technologies like XML (extensible markup language). Using XML results in a smaller file, which facilitates wireless data transfer. It also promotes interoperability between other systems such as CRM (customer relationship management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) which accept XML files. However, wireless initiatives must be supported by more traditional forms processing solutions. "It's a B2B world," contends Mickle. "Not all businesses will be able to communicate with XML or e-forms. There's always going to be paper because a certain number of documents, such as checks, will require a strategy for storage and retrieval."
The options for expanding the footprint of forms processing are increasing. VARs can use preprocessing, specialized engines, and wireless to add additional value at existing customer sites or begin prospecting new customers in markets that have been resistant in the past. While unstructured forms processing and wireless forms may not be mainstream yet, they may be the key many VARs need to open high-volume enterprise opportunities.