Test Drive of eFORMz
Shawn M. Gordon
What it can do?
Years ago there was a pretty large selection of packages to do forms processing on the HP 3000. As I recall, three of them disappeared into Unison, and some others just went away. I know that forms processing as been an issue at my last several jobs and clients, so I’m not sure what the problem is. I do know that MiniSoft has seen this gap and created a whole new generation of forms design and processing software with eFORMz.
Why is this a new generation? Well MiniSoft is learning from the many products that they have developed, and when they did their Java based termulator, Javelin, they discovered the promised land of Java. Basically all the parts of eFORMz, the client form designer, and the server form processor, are written in Java. This means that out of the box eFORMz will run on pretty much any platform that supports Java. These are referred to as the Composer and the Print Generator.
You will optionally need a spool program such as NP92 to send the PCL to an appropriate printer from your server, in our case an HP 3000.
How does it work?
To start off, make sure that you have a form that you want to produce. With this information in hand, you then need to construct your form in the form designer (or pay MiniSoft to build it for you). You can also scan in a form if you are just wanting to do some basic tests. In any case, once your form is built, you can either have your program produce the output so that it overlays they way you want, or configure Rules for placement (more on that later). Once the whole thing is done, then using the integrated FTP capability, you will send it up to the HP.
Now that you have your form on the HP you need to set up your spooling environment so that you can capture your report and merge it with the form. I was using NP92, and that works very well, I can’t comment on any other spoolers.
Now it’s just a matter of generating a spool file that matches the criteria so it can be merged with the form, and the PCL sent to the printer. While Java isn’t the fastest thing on the planet, at least on the merging end you don’t really notice it because it’s a batch process.
Now for some details on how you deal with forms. The eFORMz Composer allows you to create print Projects. A project is the entire print process for a particular data source. Each Project can contain a number of Pages, with each page containing a number of Forms.
Forms are split into two categories: Base Form and Overlay. If a Form is not specified as a Base Form, it is an Overlay. Base Forms allow you to print the same data in a number of different formats. Overlays simply overlap the Base Form to alter the appearance.
Each Form can contain a number of Rules. Rules are used to alter the appear-ance of data that is displayed on the Form. Rules provide you with the options of changing font size and style, moving data on your form, converting ASCII characters to BarCode characters (which alone is very cool). There is also “if” conditions you can apply to Rules. This will let you say something like “If the data starts with a -, then make it bold”. This is a very powerful feature, and one that will surely make forms processing much easier for many people.
In general your projects will only have one logical page even though the actual print job may contain several physical pages. For example, if you are creating a payroll print job for your company that consists of 5 employees and the payroll print job simply prints one check after another, this would be considered a Single Page Project.
Something that isn’t all that obvious is that you can import a form from a scanned image. If you are going to go this route, then make sure you clean up the image as much as possible before you use it, otherwise you will always have poor looking forms.
One of the really nifty features is the bar code conversion of text and numbers. EFormZ has support for a slew of different bar code types like 39, extended 39, Codabar, Interleave 2 of 5, MSI Code, Code 11, UPC A and E, EAN 8 and 13, Jan Code, Code 93 and 128. For anyone that has had to deal with bar codes, this is really a god send.
Installation and Documentation
Installation is very straight forward for the PC piece of the software. Minisoft includes a tape for your HP with the latest Java environment and has done a very credible job of making the install as clean and simple as possible. The documentation is purely electronic in PDF format, which is fine, but there is absolutely not one shred of information in the box on how to install or where to start. I would seriously suggest that MiniSoft at least print out the installation instructions so that you know where to start. Other than that, the documentation is well written as a reference guide, and there is one sample project to play with. Since the technology is so new, and the paradigm so different than what people are used to, I would probably include a tutorial that really walked a user through the process for the first time. The manual covers all the topics, it’s just that a walk through would speed up the learning curve.
Mostly I played around with the sample stuff that was supplied, and overall I really liked the product, but I’m struck by just how incredibly slow that Java still is. The form designer was running on Win98, with 466Mhz CPU and 64 MB of RAM. While this isn’t a total killer machine, it’s way more than they had at the last couple of clients I worked with as standard machines. The speed of Java is not the fault of Minisoft, but it’s something to remember. If you are going to have a forms designer, get him a beefy machine.
I toyed around with creating forms, and that was pretty straight forward, but it can sure be tedious, I would probably just pay MiniSoft to create forms for you if you’ve only got a few forms to create. The step of aligning data and the form is also rather tedious, but once it’s done, it’s done. I really didn’t have any problems with the software other than how incredibly slow Java is, this is what kept me from doing anything in terms of major form development and mostly working off the sample. I did receive an updated jar file for the client during the review where MiniSoft had gone through some optimization and it was a bit snappier, so that helped.
The shining star of eFormZ is also its biggest failing at the moment, and that is Java, it’s just so darn slow. I applaud MiniSoft for creating an entire package like this in Java, it’s quite amazing, and I know Java performance gets better all the time, and machines get faster all the time, so it really shouldn’t be an issue, but I do want to stress that you will want a high end PC for any forms design you might want to do.
That said, the product is very well done and has pretty thorough coverage of everything you would want to do, especially in a first release. The documentation is also clear and well written, and the learning curve is small. EFormZ also has the benefit of having been produced from scratch based on everything everyone has learned over the last 15 years of this kind of software on the HP. This means there isn’t a bunch of “stuff” in there for backward combatibility, and everyone knows why features are there and how they work. This is very important these days when software at many companies has changed hands so many times and gone through so many developers that people are afraid to do anything to it, or don’t know why certain things are there.
Need to do form processing? Look at eFormZ.
eFormz version 1.2
1024 First St.
Snohomish, WA 98290
The software comes with a CD for the client installation of your software, and should run anywhere that Java runs, but the installer is for Windows. There is a tape that is also included for your HP that has the latest Java environment. FTP is required on the HP for the transfer of files.
Price is $4,000 to $12,000 depending on CPU. Custom forms can be built for $750 each. Software consists of the Java server for processing forms, and the Java client for designing forms. Support is 20% of the purchase price per year and includes phone in, electronic support and new releases of the software. All prices are in US dollars.