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Feature

Adobe Enhances Network Publishing

Tools use server-based processes for managing images and E-forms
More than ever, companies are looking for ways to tie processes into their back-end systems. But two areas where that's been slow to develop are the capture of data via electronic forms and image creation.

Adobe Systems Inc. hopes to change that with recent additions to its network-publishing products, which the company says will help businesses seize control of rich data files by bringing a server-driven model to what had been a desktop process. Recently, it completed its acquisition of Accelio Corp., formerly known as JetForm Corp., a provider of business-process management and electronic-form applications. Integrating Accelio's E-form technology with Adobe's popular portable document format will make it easier for businesses to securely capture form-based data and integrate it into back-end systems, Adobe executives say.

In January, Adobe introduced AlterCast, which lets businesses centrally manage and maintain images. AlterCast users say the image server gives them flexibility and cuts bandwidth costs, while Accelio customers expect Adobe to bring added security, in the form of encrypted and digital signature-protected PDFs, and support to the E-forms market.

UICI Insurance Center in North Richland Hills, Texas, is pleased with the Accelio-Adobe marriage. The company mails out 6,000 insurance policies each day for a handful of insurance companies and uses Accelio's form-generation engine to create those documents. Algorithms in the Web application determine what data needs to be pulled from UICI's mainframes for populating the form fields.

The company has been working on a self-service Web application, and with Adobe now in the mix, UICI is likely to use "fillable" PDFs as the format for the documents customers will fill out online, says Theresa McKinney, manager of information services. With the integration of Adobe's Acrobat PDF-creation tool and the Accelio server, it will be simpler for UICI to have the data in those completed forms automatically update back-end customer databases, McKinney says.

Adobe's acquisition of Accelio legitimizes a disparate E-forms market, says Andy Warzecha, a senior VP at Meta Group. Accelio had a substantial customer base that was crying out for better support, he says. "They've entered a market that's in need of a big name," Warzecha says. Meanwhile, Adobe's existing customers will benefit from having access to business-process tools that back PDFs. But Warzecha says questions remain. Adobe hasn't yet spelled out how it will link Accelio technology with AlterCast so the server can handle E-forms as well as images. And Adobe lacks a repository to store the different files, he says.

AlterCast is getting good reviews, too. Urban Science, a consulting firm in Detroit, says AlterCast lets it generate, transmit, and access map files in new ways. The bulk of Urban Science's business comes from helping automakers manage their dealerships. Maps that are used to determine and illustrate the best spot for a new dealership play a key part in that process, and until recently, any time a new map was requested, it had to be manually created at a desktop PC using a proprietary engine. It was a time-consuming process that Mike Boumansour, director of technical development, says isn't the firm's core competency. Commercial mapping software offered little relief because most of it isn't flexible enough to meet Urban Science's specialized needs, he says.

So Boumansour decided to try AlterCast. The server generates maps on the fly based on the parameters of a consultant's request, and the finished image can be viewed via a Web browser. AlterCast also eases Urban Science's bandwidth troubles. Before AlterCast, loads of data had to be downloaded to the desktop to create a map. Now, the bulk of data resides on the server; only the finished image is downloaded to the desktop. "We just plug it in," Boumansour says.

Other Adobe customers are using AlterCast in application development. NetXposure, a software developer in Portland, Ore., that specializes in building content-management and E-commerce systems, is using AlterCast to simplify the way it brings images into the Web applications it builds. Previously, NetXposure had to retrieve an image from an image repository, then manually format the image on a workstation so it would conform to the needs of the Web application. Now, the company can store master images on AlterCast; when a developer requests an image in a specific format, AlterCast reformats that image on the fly and delivers it to the Web app in real time. "It's an automation tool,'' says Jason Wehling, NetXposure's chief technology officer. "You don't have to have employees sitting in front of machines doing manual transformations."

Adobe expects the addition of the Accelio E-form-generation technologies, and AlterCast's ability to centrally manage and automatically manipulate image files, to go a long way in helping businesses tie rich data files into their back-end systems. Along the way, it hopes to shed its image as a supplier of desktop tools. Says Julie McEntee, Adobe's director of product management, "We'll be able to solve a much broader class of document workflow processes."