David Weinberger
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How to be smart

01 September 1999

About a month ago, JetForm was on the road explaining why its proposed XML standard for electronic forms deserved the world's support and possibly applause. Now JetForm is back on the road explaining why its integrated, cradle-to-grave solution for electronic forms management is the best thing to happen to its customers since the invention of paper money. Is this a contradiction? Yes. Is it unusual? Not at all. Is it inevitable. Just maybe.

Here's the contradiction. The big benefit of an XML standard like XFA, proposed by JetForm, is that it makes the data inside a form accessible to anyone with an XML parser (and permission, of course). That means that any XFA form can, in theory, be used by any forms processing system, whether JetForm's or not. This should make it much easier to integrate a forms system with, say, a workflow system. And, it also means that you could generate your forms with JetForm and manage them with one of their competitor's processing systems. How lovely!

But JetForm works against this with its new announcement of an integrated "e-process" solution, and not just because "e-process" is so eminently gag-worthy. Now the message is one-stop shopping; go with a single-vendor solution.

Supporting an open standard and creating a proprietary, single-vendor solution based on it isn't logically contradictory; it's a marketing contradiction. On the one hand, you evangelize with examples of multi-vendor access to data. On the other, you line up customers who swear that single vendor solutions are the creme in the Twinkie.

And this gets at the real issue. When vendors propose open standards, the standards are almost always devised to favor their application. This is just about inevitable. For example, if your forms processing software supports digital signatures applied to every data object on a form, then your standard will support this as well. If your word processor make heavy of blinking text, your open document standard will have the equivalent of the "blink" tag. Both JetForm and UWI.com have played this game in the forms arena and there's nothing nefarious about this, and .

Except there is. Few companies genuinely propose standards out of the goodness of their hearts. It almost always is a marketing ploy. The standard thinks about the world the way the company's software does and doesn't capture features of competitors' products. Thus, company-proposed standards are usually doomed to failure except insofar as they allow the company to build integrated solutions using only its own software.

Sometimes, of course, the standards become real, either because the company genuinely steps back from it and pulls together a real coalition (e.g., SoftSolutions and ODMA) or because the company yields such a large stick that its standard becomes de facto. But the fact is that it's rare for a company to be able to design a standard that encompasses the features of its competitors without starting by inviting the competitors in as equal participants. The problem is that you lose the illusion of a marketing edge, even though the interests of the industry -- and customers -- are genuinely advanced.