Electronic Forms: The Next Frontier
VARs can get a piece of the e-commerce market by leveraging forms processing.
If you've been to the document imaging and data entry trade shows over the past couple of years, you've heard the vendors talking. The market for paper forms processing is still growing, but it is also maturing. A yearly reduction in the number of vendors exhibiting at these events is evidence of that. Consolidation and the nature of competition have weeded out the field.
As vendors in any maturing market will do, forms processing vendors are looking to expand into new markets in which they can leverage their technology. Because of the attention e-commerce has been receiving, the Internet forms market is very attractive.
Don't Get Caught Without A Digital Option
"Buyers are becoming as technologically savvy as VARs," warns Emmanuel de Boucaud, VP of worldwide channel sales for Cardiff Software. Cardiff (San Diego) is a privately held vendor of forms processing software. "They are looking to make investments in their future, and many see digital forms as part of that future."
De Boucaud says electronic forms are at least a check box on all of Cardiff's customer requests. "A lot of times customers are just looking at digital forms as a primary or secondary alternative to paper forms," he says. "In other cases, they are the key to the account. Some customers might be looking for a digital forms solution; but, once you get in and study the account, you can steer them toward a paper processing system that better fulfills their needs."
What's The Standard?
When deciding on a digital forms solution, VARs are faced with a myriad of choices. "The digital forms market is moving as fast as the rest of the Internet space," said de Boucaud. "There are a number of groups, including the W3C Council, that are trying to establish standards. And vendors like Adobe and Microsoft are vying with their own formats. We consider PDF to be today's de facto digital forms standard, but that is being challenged by Microsoft."
But is a standard for electronic forms the answer? "Dependence on proprietary forms was one of the hurdles to the acceptance of early paper forms processing applications," says Bob Fresneda, VP of sales and marketing for ReadSoft, Inc. (San Diego). ReadSoft, Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of ReadSoft AB, a publicly held forms processing vendor based in Stockholm, Sweden. "As forms processing developers released software that could read customers' existing forms, the technology gained wider acceptance. Even now, there is a trend of vendors developing technology for processing unstructured forms. This is an attempt to move further away from the restrictions of standard forms."
Reading Existing Forms Is Key To Market Growth
It's Fresneda's view that success in the digital forms market will mean reading forms created in applications like ERP and CRM. "Programs from vendors like SAP, Oracle, and PeopleSoft create their own forms using data entered by their users," says Fresneda. "Data from these forms, such as invoice information, needs to be transferred between businesses. To accomplish this, these forms are typically printed, and data is then keyed from the printed form, or the information is exchanged through an EDI system. It would be a lot simpler if businesses could automatically extract data from each other's electronic forms using recognition technology.
"Some of our competitors want users to transfer their data to 'standard'-type electronic forms before sending it to another business. It's my opinion that the first forms processing vendor to figure out how to read data straight from the electronic forms created in applications like ERP and CRM will be the first to reach $100 million in annual sales. The key lies somewhere in unstructured forms processing technology because all these applications produce differently formatted forms."
There you have it - a snapshot of what the future holds for forms processing. Some of this may seem cutting edge right now. However, if there's one thing that everyone in the industry agrees on, it's that even if they're years away from implementing them, customers will ask about electronic forms. Don't get caught without an answer.Questions about this article? E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.