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What happened to the forms market?

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FORMS MARKET? "Forms Software Fails to Live Up to Industry Expectations," InfoWorld has just pointed out (6/4/90). The evidence of a debacle is hard to dispute: The current market leader, Delrina's PerForm, has sold just 70,000 copies since its introduction in late 1988. Claris is reportedly looking for a buyer for its SmartForm product (estimated 1989 sales: 4,500 copies). Adobe, which bought TrueForm more than a year ago, has put development efforts on a back burner. FormBase, which Xerox once hoped would become a second Ventura, seems to be lost in a corporate reshuffling. In fact, the only forms products that are selling in any numbers seem to be low-end titles that carry prices in the $50-$150 range and sell primarily through catalogs and mail-order channels.

What went wrong? More than two years ago, we were convinced that the forms market had huge potential (Soft*letter, 11/15/87), once the right products appeared. A large part of the problem, of course, is that the market is still cluttered with products that are poorly implemented and half-finished. Even the best of the bunch tend to have profound shortcomings that their developers acknowledge--and promise to fix in later versions, once more cash starts flowing. Not surprisingly, a lot of forms-intensive customers have simply decided to wait until the vapor clers away.

But we also think there's another reason the forms market is so bogged down: Developers of forms products have been aiming at the wrong targets. The category has always seen some confusion about the primary function of forms software. Some forms products have been designed as specialized drawing or desktop publishing tools, aimed primarily at graphic artists; other products are designed around small-scale data management tasks, usually for individuals and workgroups.

We now suspect both of these design definitions miss a critical point about forms, which is that forms are primarily a communication medium. Most common forms--expense accounts, tax returns, checks, invoices, insurance claims, purchase orders--exist primarily to convey highly structured, repetitious kinds of information from one person to another, or between organizations. A form is literally a message; it invites review, action, and eventually a response (typically another form). Thus, the act of drawing a form or retrieving data is a relatively trivial concern; instead, the core problem for forms users is how to make this message-handling process more efficient.

For most large-scale forms users--the IRS and other government agencies, banks, insurance companies, distributors--information transfer is clearly the productivity hot button, because these organizations are choking on a rising tide of paper forms. For an individual, filling out an occasional form by hand is merely an inconvenience. But for organizations that have to recruit thousands of people to re-key and review paper forms, forms automation is literally a survival issue.

Right now, expensive mainframe-based systems offer the only really viable solution to the problems of large-scale forms handling. But we soon expect to see a good deal of competition emerge from LAN and WAN software companies, some of which are beginning to look at electronic form as a network application that could rival--or even surpass--traditional E-mail. Rather than create their own forms products from scratch, moreover, network companies almost certainly will shop around for acquisitions and strategic alliances with developers of forms software. The result could be new visibility and new marketing channels for forms software--and, perhaps, sales levels that finally live up to "industry expectations" for the forms category.
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Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Soft-Letter
Date:Jun 11, 1990
Words:580
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