Doculabs gets a lot of questions from clients regarding when to use Adobe versus Microsoft for e-forms applications. This post provides a short comparison. You may find it useful if you are:
- Developing your approach for forms, e-forms, or workflow
- Implementing ECM with SharePoint, as either the primary or supplementary system, and are trying to understand where Adobe or Microsoft best fit
- Deciding what to do with your existing implementations of Adobe, Microsoft, or other e-forms products
- Developing an approach for Customer Communications Management, where dynamic communications with your customers is an issue
This post evaluates the four e-forms products offered by the two vendors:
- Adobe: Adobe LiveCycle and Adobe Acrobat X Pro
- Microsoft: Microsoft InfoPath Form Services (part of SharePoint 2010 Server Enterprise Edition) and Microsoft InfoPath (the desktop e-forms client)
Adobe LiveCycle is a complete solution when it includes the free Reader component for form submitters. InfoPath Form Services, however, must generally be supplemented by the (not free) InfoPath desktop client for form submitters.
To cut to the chase: The Adobe solution beats Microsoft for more complex applications.The Microsoft solution beats Adobe for simpler applications and for SharePoint-centric or for broader Microsoft-centric applications.
Adobe LiveCycle is Adobe’s enterprise e-forms and workflow solution – a complex, mature, best-of-breed product. Pricing varies depending on licensing arrangements and other variables, but it is often $100,000 to $250,000.
- Supports full XML and HTML in addition to PDF forms; Adobe LiveCycle Designer supports XML-based data sources without coding
- Adobe and its partners provide a growing portfolio of vertical solutions (forms templates, workflow templates, expertise)
- Supports data integration; Adobe LiveCycle Designer allows using data sources associated with web services and SQL Server
- Dynamic assembly supports building new forms on the fly
- Supports OCR and barcoding for ingesting and processing paper forms
- Digital signature support available as add-on
- Supports several form industry standards
- Allows the use of SharePoint web services to upload document from any location; a third-party product allows bidirectional mapping of SharePoint columns to PDF fields
- Expensive and “overkill” for organizations with basic e-forms requirements
Adobe Acrobat X Pro
Adobe Acrobat X Pro is Adobe’s desktop PDF client – its e-forms offering for small to mid-market organizations. The solution is priced under $1,000 (typically under $500).
- User can fill out forms with free, ubiquitous Adobe Reader (unlike Microsoft InfoPath)
- Native SharePoint integration supports library services; allows saving in SharePoint list
- Rich form designer
- Provides rich form user interfaces (UIs) for submitters through Adobe Flash
- Supports public-key infrastructures (PKIs)
- No server-based workflow
- No dynamic form assembly
- Self-signing e-approval, but no server-based management of digital signature files
Microsoft InfoPath Form Services
Microsoft InfoPath Form Services is part of SharePoint 2010 Server Enterprise Edition. The product is Microsoft’s comprehensive, server-based e-forms and workflow solution that works with the InfoPath client. While it is part of the SharePoint Enterprise Edition, it is not a standard module and must be purchased separately. Pricing varies, depending on licensing arrangements and other variables, but it is generally $100,000 to $250,000.
- InfoPath is part of the Office suite and is designed to integrate with other Office products (e.g. Word, Excel, Outlook)
- SharePoint-enabled workflow and dynamic form assembly; submitting forms to SharePoint can trigger workflows – e.g. for routing, notification, or updating data in other lists and libraries
- Fully integrated with Microsoft SharePoint library services, allowing users to stay within the SharePoint user interface
- Employs InfoPath’s XML-based format
- Connects to many back-end data sources, including SharePoint, SQL databases, Access, and any web service that interfaces with a non-Microsoft database
- The forms can be directly integrated with SharePoint through form libraries, which allows the data to be discoverable by search across all SharePoint sites
- Allows browser-enabling of forms, enabling use of different, non-Microsoft platforms and non-Microsoft browsers without needing the InfoPath client
- The form-fill client, InfoPath, is not free (unlike Adobe Reader), limiting the scope and the market footprint of Microsoft forms-based solutions
- Some product risk, as Microsoft’s strategy and roadmap for the product are unclear
- Some advanced features are available only through partners (e.g. optical character recognition [OCR], barcoding, support for industry standards)
Microsoft InfoPath is Microsoft’s XML-based desktop client e-forms solution, without the server-based component of InfoPath Forms Services. Pricing is relatively low per client, but can get costly, depending on the number of licenses required (unlike Adobe Reader).
- Member of Microsoft Office family, with integration and familiar user experience
- Strong form design and authoring
- Strong support for XML standards and arbitrary XML schemas
- Provides data analysis and survey capabilities
- Microsoft offers no free e-form filler (unlike Adobe)
- Requires Form Services for enterprise e-forms capabilities
- As with Form Services, it has some product risk, as Microsoft’s product strategy and roadmap are unclear
- As with Form Services, some advanced features are available only through partners (e.g. OCR, barcoding, support for industry standards)
So if you’re looking to implement e-forms, or you’re trying to figure out what to do with your existing e-forms products to provide the capabilities you need, consider the complexity of your applications, and keep in mind that the Adobe solution beats Microsoft for more complex applications, those that require advanced functionality. But also take a look at how SharePoint-centric or broader Microsoft-centric your applications are and factors such as the importance of SharePoint-enabled workflow for those applications.