Intelligent Documents Headline XML 2003

December 9, 2003

Edd Dumbill

Edd Dumbill and Kendall Clark are reporting live this week from IDEAlliance's XML 2003 conference in Philadelphia.

At the opening of this year's XML USA conference in Philadephia, PA, smart XML documents were the star. Keynotes from Jon Udell of InfoWorld and Shantanu Narayen of Adobe focused on XML documents that conveyed the nuance of real world communication.

Udell spoke of the importance of context in everyday communication. He noted that the most prevalent forms of business communication, email and instant messaging, tended to preserve the least context. It was a shame to see highly skilled, highly paid technical professionals spend excessive amounts of time trying to disentangle convoluted email threads. A shame, too, that while Microsoft has brought XML into the Word and Excel products, Outlook does not permit XML document creation.

The other problem in preserving context, aside from the tools, is of course persuading people to create metadata in the first place. Udell suggested that a way of doing this might be through using style as a back door. Many people are willing to spend a long time on getting the look of a document right, but not be willing to spend that time on metadata creation. Udell suggested that by providing metadata-significant styles, authoring tools creators could encourage more preservation of context in communication through the carrot of creating beautiful documents.

While Udell spoke from the personal content creation perspective, Shantanu Narayen of Adobe addressed "smart documents" from the point of view of corporate needs. In addition to preserving metadata, it is important that business documents can also bundle presentation and behavioral information.

Adobe intends to use its PDF document format and the deployed software base of Acrobat Reader as the bedrock for automating many business processes through smart documents. Taking the route of emulating traditional paper forms, Adobe's smart documents are fill-in forms that generate XML: to either static documents, web services, or databases.

The smart documents contain three elements: the document part, including XSL-FO and SVG for presentation; the forms part, using XSLT and JavaScript for validation and adaptation; and metadata, using Adobe's XMP (a restricted RDF).

Narayen's assistant showed attendees a preview of Adobe Designer, a visual tool for engineering these forms. Form elements can be linked directly to XML schemas, web service interface parameters, or relational database columns via drag and drop. Javascript to provide validation and other behavior can also be attached to form elements. Notable was the absence of any use of the W3C's XForms technology, although plentiful use was made of other web standards.

Some of the most appealing features of Adobe's solution include perservation of visual similarility to familiar paper forms, the cross-platform nature of Acrobat Reader, and the fact that documents were not tied to any one backend solution: forms could be emailed on, sent via a web service, or connected directly to databases.

Coming at the same time as XForms and Microsoft's InfoPath, Adobe's Intelligent Documents confirm that there is now a great deal of interest in creating flexible, easily-authored, frontends for XML business documents.