Spanning the Digital Divide: The Future of Document Management
January 27, 2004 Alex Woodie
Over the last few years, people and companies have warmed to the idea of electronic documents. Where once people would have scoffed at the idea of receiving bills or bank statements electronically, today it’s becoming a requirement to retain customers. In the iSeries community, software vendors have adapted their forms applications to distribute documents in a variety of ways, and they continue to shape their offerings to meet future demands.
In the early days of OS/400 forms software, the packages were designed primarily to do one thing: save money by reducing companies’ dependence on pre-printed forms using electronic templates, blank stock, and laser printers. While that remains a powerful motivation for many buyers of document management software, in the end the output is still a piece of paper that requires postage and handling.
To speed delivery, vendors began offering fax as an output option for invoices, purchase orders, and myriad of other critical documents OS/400 shops produce every day. As the Internet took hold in the late 1990s, vendors added e-mail output modules to their forms packages. Eventually, a dozen or so vendors emerged with fairly robust and modularized document management suites that could reduce the dependence on pre-printed forms and line printers, and then some.
Companies looking to implement an OS/400 document management solution today have an array of choices. For the purposes of this comparison, we will examine software that has a native OS/400 output engine and a graphical forms design tool (normally running on a Windows PC). There are many vendors that sell lower-cost “spool filers” (which serve a basic purpose but lack the graphical capability) or run the document output engine on Windows or Unix. For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to look at the options customers have among the native OS/400 document management systems.
Software vendors offering OS/400 document management packages are Adobe (which acquired Accelio/Jetform), ACOM Solutions, Create!form International (acquired by Bottomline Technologies), Digital Designs, Elite Document Solutions, inFORM Decisions, Integrated Custom Software, IBM, Optio Software, Quadrant Software, Resolutions, and Solution400 International. While each of the packages sold by these vendors is similar in some ways, they also have different strengths that users should be aware of.
All of the document management packages offered by these vendors include a graphical forms designer that creates electronic templates which mimic the look of a company’s pre-printed forms and maps the forms’ fields to OS/400 spool files and applications. The degree of automation, or conversely the amount of technical skill needed, in this mapping process can vary from one product to the next. Some products also allow more customization in setting up complex distribution routines.
All of these packages will output to laser printers, in one or more print data streams. PCL is the most common, although some, like Create!form’s Create!print suite, rely on PostScript, while others, such as IBM’s Infoprint Server and Solution 400 International’s S4i Express, support AFP/IPDS as well. If the vendor uses PostScript, the user should check for any per-impression fees. Many of these packages support other formats, such as RTF, PDF, or output to spreadsheets, which are features commonly found in less expensive spool filers.
Companies that may want to print checks with their forms package will want to make sure it supports output to magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) laser printers; most of them do. Other packages also allow the user to bypass the check-printing process entirely and submit payments electronically using the Automated Clearing House (ACH) network. To prevent check fraud, many vendors have added “positive pay” capabilities to their forms packages.
MOVING TO E-DOCUMENTS
Most of the packages discussed here provide users with a modular upgrade path. As the user gets started in the first step–converting their pre-printed forms into electronic templates–most vendors allow the user to go to the second step: plugging in additional output modules, such as a fax or an e-mail module. In the last two years, sales of fax and e-mail modules have increased significantly, vendors say, and today they should be considered standard features of any document management system worth its salt.
The capability to automatically route documents to customers through e-mail or fax is becoming a requirement for Integrated Custom Software’s customers, says Tom Gearing, a district marketing manager with the company. “Two years ago, you didn’t hear much about automatic e-mailing, but all of a sudden it’s becoming more important,” he says. “That wave just continues to get bigger. Even if it doesn’t drive the sale, it’s a credential you have to have to go to the next step.”
Beyond e-mailing and faxing documents, one feature that has proved very popular in just the last year is a Web archive module, which allows a user to post documents to an internal or external Web site, usually in PDF format. “We found in the last six months that the archive product is growing the fastest,” says Kurt Mueffelmann, president of Create!form International. “People want to go to the Web for information.”
Since Adobe introduced the PDF 10 years ago, use of PDFs has skyrocketed. To date, there have been more than 500 million downloads of free Adobe’s PDF readers, the company says, and the PDF today is the mandated e-document standard for some of the world’s largest companies and governmental bodies. Whether the PDF’s popularity is the cause or the effect of people’s growing willingness to read and use electronic documents is moot; the PDF is here, and it’s staying.
Many document management software vendors today still require users to run PDF conversions on a PC, and then upload them to the OS/400 server for distribution. Last June, inFORM Decisions launched a native OS/400 PCL-to-PDF converter, one of a handful of native OS/400 PDF converters on the market. Dan Forster, inFORM’s president, says there are important differences between the PDF converters. “There are only a couple of vendors that are converting [to PDF] in an intelligent way,” he says, “as opposed to some of the others, which are basically generating one big TIF image,” which are larger and can lack search and indexing capabilities, he says.
FUTURE OF DOCUMENTS
Document management software started as a way to eliminate pre-printed forms and to move to cheap and ubiquitous laser printers, but today this class of software is also a company’s gateway into electronic documents. The development plans that a vendor has for its suite of software can have a large impact on what capabilities are available to its users.
Some document management vendors, such as FormScape and inFORM Decisions, are moving more toward content management and workflow capabilities. Still other forms vendors have partnerships with OS/400 content management providers, such as Electronic Storage Corp., Gauss (recently acquired by Open Text), Real Vision Software, and Vanguard Systems.
FormScape, which does not offer a native OS/400 document distribution engine but has thousands of J.D. Edwards’ customers, has linked its flagship FormScape package with its new business and content process management offering called Covus. “There is never a green field at a customer site,” says FormScape’s vice president of marketing, Brian Reed. “You’re always running into something else, whether its iSeries, J.D. Edwards, Microsoft Office, Dreamweaver, or other PeopleSoft interfaces. Customers want to make documents flow in and out of those environments, and they need to tie all those things together through linkages.”
inFORM’s Forster also wants to add more workflow and routing capabilities to his company’s Web-based archive solution, which he foresees becoming a low-end replacement for a higher-end content management system. “It’s filling in forms through a Web browser and routing it to the next desk for approval, but just the data is routed, not the form, in XML format,” he says. “Distributing the information is really what we’re talking about, not sending the information with boxes and lines around it. We’re sending the data in XML and populating their databases, or populating their forms with it.”
Create!form’s Mueffelmann also sees XML factoring into the mix, but more from a standpoint of completing financial transactions. “People haven’t crossed that digital divide,” he says. “People expect to see an invoice or a purchase order. They don’t want to see XML.” Since being acquired by Bottomline Technologies, a $100 million company with an array of payment management offerings, the Create!form package has been integrated with Bottomline’s new secure payment network. “What will be big in the future is electronic payments,” Mueffelmann says. “We’re doing a fair amount of that right now, with invoice retrieval matching and electronic payment and presentment.” Some variant of XML will be used to complete the transaction, he says.
“The digital divide is not as prevalent as it used to be,” says ACOM Solutions’ vice president, Gregg Church. “People are seeing we’re in the age of digitized document, digitized handling of information. The Internet is adapting technology, and you’re going to miss out if you don’t jump on the bandwagon.”