Remember the paperless office? Of course you do. It was one of those fairy stories you heard about at your mother's knee, like Little Red Riding Hood and Self Assessment makes Income Tax Easier. It was what was going to happen once Email took hold, only you haven't seen it yet. As you fill in your overtime form and trot along to the pay office with your expenses, the possibilities of going paperless seem very attractive. OmniForm 2 may not solve all your problems, but it does have the aim of hacking away at those messy, resource-wasting forms.
There's nothing new about the idea, but OmniForm combines Caere's considerable knowledge of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) with form design. Most businesses have plenty of forms already, hacked into reasonable shape by years of evolution. Rather than start again from scratch, why not take a current form and scan it in? That's the opportunity that OmniForm presents.
Installation was simple enough, though I was unimpressed to see 11 floppy disks in the box: I'd almost forgotten the joys of feeding diskettes.
Luckily I made sure that all the obscure language dictionaries weren't loaded, meaning that five disks were skipped over; even so, it's time Caere discovered CD-ROM.
OmniForm comes in both Windows 95 and 3.1 versions, selecting the appropriate software automatically. There isn't much UK customisation. Although there is a British English dictionary, and the program picks up on localisations such as currency, the example files are all US, the default page size is Letter, and the field types have US or generic names, rather than UK specific ones.
For the faint hearted, there's a wizard to help with scanning a form - it starts other common processes such as printing or design too, but that's limited to opening a form in the right view. The first decision is where to get the original. There are options to use HP Accuscan, an image file where you've already acquired the form, or a Twain driver to another scanner type. Next you select paper size. The options are Legal, Letter and A4, a surprisingly limited selection. Finally, you choose whether to scan the form as an image (rather jauntily selected as "I don't care about the form's design") or as recognised data.
The image option is useful if you are dealing with a form you wish to keep looking as much like the original as possible. OmniForm scans the image, then guesses where to put fields. After that you can use the layout editor to reposition and clean up the fields, but the body of the form remains a bitmap. Recognition is more interesting for most business forms, however. Instead of providing the body of the form as a graphic, each label is scanned and OCR'd. This will probably require a little tweaking to correct scan errors - though I found that original forms were very accurately reproduced - but will allow for much more flexibility.
Recognition ignores anything it thinks is a graphic, but it's easy to get them in. The Form Image view splits the screen between the recognised form and the original. Click on the graphic tool and drag a selection area around the image. A rectangle appears in the same position on the recognised form. With a couple of clicks this is filled with the equivalent picture from the scan. The interface for this action is back to front - you point where the image is going to end up, not where it's coming from - but once the action becomes familiar it's easy to suck in a non-text item. Occasionally OmniForm gets a bit carried away and tries to recognise a graphic as text, resulting in rather elegant garbage, but the text can be deleted and the same process used to replace it with the graphic.
OmniForm's ability to recognise the active parts of a form depends significantly on the design. It will cope with most home-grown forms well, provided the area for the user to type is clearly identified by a box or underline.
Fancier forms can give it more of a challenge. I tried it on a VAT return form, which uses shading and has some confusing boxes. OmniForm failed to spot most of the typing areas, and put several within labels. Even so, it takes but a minute or two to untangle the mess. Fields can be moved, reformatted and generally cleaned up in a conventional forms design screen.
Each field has a type, displayed in the status bar when you fill the form in. Right clicking the field brings up a local menu including object definition. This three-tabbed dialog identifies the name and type of the field, any special filling properties like choice from a list or maximum length, and basic validation. Surprisingly, there is no option to force the input into upper case, which would be useful for a postcode. As well as simple text boxes, you can also have comb fields that separate the typing into individual elements (great for credit-card numbers), a check box with the choice of a cross, a tick or a blob to fill it, and a circle text tool, that switches on and off a circle around an item of text.
There are some handy features to help the designer. OmniForm supports OLE 2, making it possible to drag an image from Explorer, or select a block of text from your word processor and drop it in place. In place editing helps make this a practical option. A particularly useful extra is the scrapbook, a collection of standard elements that you can pop into a form. The choice of form fields and images can be added to, so you can drop in your company logo or a standard element for requesting a staff number. Tab order is also easy to set up thanks to a clear graphical tool.
When OmniForm is really motoring it can even do some clever work from labels on the form. If you have a table with columns labelled price, quantity and total, OmniForm will automatically set up the third column to be the price times the quantity. This gimmick leads neatly into the calculation feature. A calculation toolbar provides spreadsheet-like functions to add to your form. This has a nice pasting utility that shows all the available functions in a tree. Click on, for example, the date function and it drops into the field.
Once the form is set up it can be saved away and used. Now OmniForm becomes a basic database. Information typed into the form is saved as a set of records that can be scrolled around, or searched with a simple find function.
By default the information is held with the form, but it is possible to link instead via ODBC to a more sophisticated database where the information can be made widely available. There's a spell checker to sort your typing errors too.
When you need to send on the form, you could print it, but a more significant option is to send it via Email. If you are using MAPI-based mail this can include an advice slip and routing using the standard MAPI features.
There is one real gap in the output possibilities, though - you can't save to a word processor file. I would find this extremely useful. If you send out invoices by Email, you want the company at the other end to be able to read them - WP output is by far the simplest mechanism.
Caere offers an OmniForm filler package, but you have to buy this.
At the very least if they can't export to Word, there ought to be a free view and print utility, though it's arguable that the filler should be free as well. Interestingly, the Internet version of OmniForm currently in beta has a free filler, putting pressure on this version to follow.
A surprising omission was the lack of digital signature support. The competing Delrina product uses RSA digital signatures to enable someone to authorise a form, not just fill it in; OmniForm has no mention of this possibility.
OmniForm is a powerful form generation and filling package. The text recognition features make it a very short job to take most existing forms and convert them into something immediately useful. There are some surprising limitations, most obviously the very small range of paper size - in my experience forms come in some bizarre formats - and the limited formatting for fields, but even so this is a reasonable contender if you don't want to go for full-scale workflow.
PRICING AND CONTACT INFORMATION
OmniForm 2.0 retails at #229 (more like #199 on the street), while the form filler is #79 per seat. Contact 0171 222 3200. Web site http://www.caere.com
- Excellent recognition of paper forms
- Email and database options
- Easy to use formulae
- No free viewer or filler
- Limited paper size
- Little UK tailoring
- Lack of digital signatures.
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