Questioning the E-Form Existence
Software advances cause the superform of the '90s to take on multiple forms.
What looked to be the super-modern form of the '90s quickly became, in a way, outdated. As software technology progressed, so did the way we relayed information. As a result, not all of the data entered into computers needs to be printed on paper. In fact, a lot of it is routed via e-mail and stored in its appropriate place. That may be why some suppliers are reluctant to call electronic forms forms at all.
"The electronic form in itself hit the wall in 1998," said Bob Lachner, RxLaser, Brea, Calif. "We found that we had to go beyond printing because people wanted to be able to e-mail and fax from the same e-form template and route it different ways."
Basically, he added, customers wanted to move from a hardware to a software solution. "Just consider that it costs $0.52 to mail an invoice, $0.07 to send it by fax and nothing to send through e-mail," said Lachner. "That's a 30 percent cost cut, so it only makes sense for users to go with software options."
Lachner explained that as technology progresses, the use of electronic forms—or software applications—will diminish the number of printed forms. "Zero cost wins out; e-mail not only sends information faster, it gives senders confirmation that it was received," said Lachner.
Currently, RxLaser's standard electronic forms are virtual forms stored as pictures on a laser printer font cartridge. When installed into the printer, the form image and the data can be merged together in one pass. Since the form becomes an extension of the laser printer's memory, lengthy downloads and complex operations involving forms software packages are eliminated. Also eliminated is the need to buy pre-printed form stock.
The cost for going electronic by upgrading from dot matrix to laser printers can be as low as $3,000. For a complete software program with multi-functions, the investment is about $100,000.
In RxLaser's experience, standard e-forms are suitable for the medical, government, manufacturing, banking, insurance, education and media industries and are, in essence, the closest distributors get to the "form" in electronic forms.
To Jon Baker, vice president of strategic planning, Allied Business Documents, Providence, R.I., such e-forms are almost archaic. In fact, he said that tangible, printed electronic forms never even got a chance to blossom.
"E-forms never really existed," said Baker. "In the early '90s, designers got really excited about the old form template that was downloaded onto computers. Users essentially filled in the blanks and then printed the forms," he said. The reality, he noted, is that the user still had a paper-based form.
"Initially the hype predicted that e-forms would completely replace traditional ones, but that didn't pan out," he said. "Today companies are using custom applications that can replace forms and add value."
Such applications have become more sophisticated in the past three years, having been designed specifically for the Internet. For example, said Baker, when routing an expense report, a computer application takes the data and sends it to the back-end accounting package, thus eliminating the need for a printed form.
"But, I don't have the Chicken Little syndrome when it comes to traditional paper-based forms. There is always a requirement to have paper in certain situations," Baker conceded.
One of the companies making a profit selling software for paper-based e-forms is Plantrol, Westfield, N.Y. The forms, said Joe DeBiso, technical implementation manager, are technically called form overlays.
"Electronic forms take on a lot of different meanings. We implement them at the basic level in which they are pre-defined forms that reside in the laser printer. We use the same technology to generate a fax output," explained DeBiso.
Plantrol also utilizes e-forms that run through Adobe PDF documents that generate e-mail acknowledgements on both purchase orders and quotes.
"E-forms are growing in popularity and the majority of new applications that we install today incorporate them in one way or another," he said. "It didn't used to be that way."
In fact, Plantrol has been suggesting the use of e-forms to its customers for about 10 years. But it hasn't been until the past 18 months that they've seen it is a valuable business tool, noted DeBiso.
"Using the Internet to transmit e-form data is the way a lot of future business is going to go, and customers are realizing how easy and effective it is," he said. "It gives them instant gratification."
Still, DeBiso experiences a lot of apprehension about e-form use, because, "They replace what distributors, manufacturers and end-users are used to dealing with.
"We just have to prove its advantages over time. Once they see the benefits and potential, generally people are willing to take it on," added DeBiso
Right now, Plantrol sees that the more progressive manufacturers are willing to provide forms on a diskette without requiring a paper-based copy. But they are in the minority.
"It is basically the technological counterpart to traditional paper-based forms," DeBiso said. "I would think the distributor of the future would promote technology to compliment other products."
By Sharon R. Cole