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Pro Bonus LiveCycle Designer

Pro Bonus: LiveCycle Designer

The Pro version also includes Adobe LiveCycle Designer 7 (previously sold separately) for creating editable Acrobat forms that can collect user input in XML, today’s lingua franca for sharing data. and geared toward expert users. The module gets new polish and usability in this release, and Designer does a fine job of getting you started by generating XML-enabled forms using a variety of sources.

A capable wizard lets you base your design on about two dozen templates for common business documents, such as purchase orders, invoices, and timesheets. You can also generate forms from databases and Web services (via WSDL files), or just import existing PDF files directly to get started. Completed form data can now be e-mailed as XML to a central mailbox or even processed electronically via SOAP-based Web services. Though it’s not as slick as the main Acrobat tool, Designer ranks favorably with its main competitor, Microsoft InfoPath 2003, for overall effectiveness in building forms.

Designer offers a handy visual editor for building forms, with about 20 control types, including static text, images, and bar codes, as well as a variety of editable controls for accepting user input and converting it into XML. Beyond dragging and dropping, you can change properties of each control in a separate window. This style of design should be familiar to anyone who is comfortable with designing HTML forms with tools like Macromedia’s Dreamweaver.

Controls can be “masked” to accept only certain kinds of data, like phone numbers. For simple calculations or more advanced validation rules, you can attach script code using JavaScript or Adobe’s proprietary FormCalc language. We used this feature to simulate several calculated fields on a sample invoice with ease.

Over the years, Acrobat has excelled at creating exact electronic replicas of paper-based forms. The new Designer also allows you to create dynamic items in forms, such as line details on an invoice that expand or shrink according to how many items you actually need. (This feature mimics the approach favored by InfoPath, though it’s entirely optional here.) As you design your form, you can view its XML (though we missed syntax highlighting) and see what it looks like in PDF preview mode.

After publishing a form, end users enter data using Reader 7 or Acrobat (the version of Acrobat needed depends on the features of the form). By clicking on the Submit button, XML data is sent to a designated mailbox. In testing, we used this feature successfully to simulate a completed purchase order, an invoice, and a customer survey. (For SOAP-based Web services, it’s a cinch to call up a Web service with the user’s XML data using just a line or two of script code.) Once these XML attachments are collected, Designer lets administrators export them quickly as CSV text files. Of course, for getting rid of all human intervention, organizations will need to invest in systems like Adobe’s separately available enterprise-level server tools that can consume this XML automatically.

If all you need is the ability to create PDF files with hyperlinks and bookmarks, you can use programs such as Jaws PDF Creator ($79 direct, or FinePrint’s pdfFactory Pro, with the ability to combine multiple PDF files ($99 direct, But Acrobat remains the only corporate-level software for managing PDF files, and version 7.0 finally brings the speed, convenience, and flexibility that the PDF format deserves.