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Citation Software Inc.
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QUESTION: What is a PDF form?

ANSWER: A PDF form is a PDF file that a computer user can interact with. A PDF form contains boxes where a user can type text, lists from which a user can choose particular items, buttons that a user can click on, etc.

Creating PDF forms

There are various software applications that allow you to use a point-and-click interface to create PDF forms. Most people probably use a commercial version of the Adobe Acrobat software to create them. (When we say "a commercial version," we mean a version of Adobe Acrobat that costs a few hundred dollars. The free Adobe Reader software cannot be used to create PDF forms.) Another Adobe product that can be used to create PDF forms is Adobe LiveCycle Designer (formerly known as "Adobe Designer" — more about this below).

In addition to the applications mentioned above, there are various applications made by companies other than Adobe that allow you to create forms.

Using PDF forms

The mechanisms that allow a user to interact with a PDF form are contained in some "PDF-viewer" applications. The most widely used PDF-viewer applications are the Adobe Acrobat software and the Adobe Reader software.

PDF forms are sometimes used to collect information from users via the Internet or via an Intranet. In these cases, a Web server sends PDF forms out over the Internet or Intranet to a Web browser on a user's computer, and the PDF forms are displayed in the Web-browser window by PDF-viewer software that is running on that user's computer. The PDF-viewer software (for example, the Adobe Acrobat software or Adobe Reader software) actually runs inside the Web browser, renders the PDF form inside the Web-browser window, and manages the user's interaction with the text boxes, lists, and buttons, etc. that are on the PDF form.

Most PDF forms contain a button that a user is supposed to click when he has finished filling out the form. In the typical case, the data that was entered by the user and the selections that were made by the user are sent over the Internet or Intranet to a Web server when the user clicks this button. Software on the Web server then takes control and uses the data as required. For example, the software on the Web server might store the data in a database for later use. Or, the software on the Web server might utilize the data to generate a document of some kind — often this is done by populating a PDF form dynamically (that is, programmatically).

Besides allowing a human user to interact with a PDF form, there are other ways to put information into the fields in a PDF form. If you'd like to learn about programmer's toolkits/libraries that can facilitate development of a system that populates PDF forms dynamically, click here.

Note that it is also possible to make use of PDF forms without involving a Web server. For example, a user can fill out a PDF form, save it, and then email it somewhere.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Prior to the release of Adobe Acrobat 8, it wasn't possible to use the free Adobe Reader software to save a filled-in PDF form. However, Adobe Acrobat 8 allows you to create PDF forms that can be saved in the free Adobe Reader software.

Two kinds of PDF forms

There are two different kinds of PDF forms:
  1. The "old kind." Technically, this kind of form is known as an "AcroForm."
  2. The "new kind." Technically, this kind of form is known as an "XFA-based form."
What?s the difference between the two?

AcroForm (old kind)

An AcroForm can be created with Adobe Acrobat 4.x, 5.x, 6.x, 7.x, or 8.x; and a user can interact with an AcroForm by using Adobe Acrobat 4.x, 5.x, 6.x, 7.x, or 8.x or by using the free "Reader" application for one of those Adobe Acrobat versions. In addition, there are quite a few developer?s tools/libraries that allow a programmer to create a system that populates (fills) AcroForms automatically (see SolutionFinder_PDFStampingMergingFormFilling.htm).

XFA-based form (new kind)

XFA-based forms were introduced by Adobe a few years ago. XFA is a format that is based on technology developed by a company named "Accellio," which was acquired by Adobe several years ago.

"XFA" stands for "XML Forms Architecture"; and XFA-based forms are so named because the appearance and behavior of an XFA-based form is dictated by an XML data structure inside the PDF file.

Prior to the release of Adobe Acrobat 7, you had to purchase the "Adobe Designer" application to create an XFA-based form. However, when Adobe Systems released Adobe Acrobat 7, they bundled the Adobe Designer application (now called "Adobe LiveCycle Designer 7.0") with Adobe Acrobat 7; and they also added to Adobe Acrobat 7 some menu controls that let you initiate the creation of an XFA-based form from within Adobe Acrobat 7.

Note that XFA-based forms can?t be guaranteed to work properly with versions of Adobe Acrobat/Adobe Reader older than Version 7. Also, most of the non-Adobe developer?s tools and libraries that allow a programmer to populate PDF forms automatically DO NOT work with XFA-based forms.

Are you confused yet? There?s more. . . !

There are actually two different ways to create a PDF form if you?re working within Adobe Acrobat 7, and depending upon which way you do it, you?ll either get an AcroForm or an XFA-based form.* Specifically:

  1. If you click Tools > Advanced Editing and then use the Button Tool, Check Box Tool, Combo Box Tool, etc. on the drop-down menu, you?ll be creating an AcroForm.

  2. But if you click Advanced > Forms > Create New Form, Adobe LiveCycle Designer 7.0 will be launched, and you?ll be creating an XFA-based form.

*The information above is based on the Windows version of Adobe Acrobat 7. Things might work differently with the Macintosh version of Adobe Acrobat 7.

Why is all of this important? Because if you?re developing a workflow or a document-creation system that is based on PDF forms, you?ll want to make sure that everything is going to work properly. For example: don?t create XFA-based forms and expect to use non-Adobe software to populate them dynamically, because you probably are not going to find a developer?s tool/library that can handle this.

If you are a developer that would like to gain a deeper understanding of Acrobat Forms vs. XFA-based forms, we recommend that you go to and join the PDF-Forms discussion list.

PDF forms vs. HTML forms

PDF forms can function very much like the HTML forms that are typically employed these days to collect data from users on the Internet or within an Intranet. If you are creating a software system that will collect data from users on the Internet or on an Intranet, you might want to consider using PDF forms instead of using the more-conventional HTML forms. Click here to see some guidelines that explain when to use HTML forms and when to use PDF forms.

How to get more information about PDF forms

It is easy to obtain free information about PDF forms. Here is some information about resources that you can use to get started:
If you own the full version of the Adobe Acrobat software, read the information about PDF forms in the on-line Adobe Acrobat documentation.

Visit the Planet PDF "Forums" area, register as a guest, and browse through the on-line "Forms & FDF" discussions.

Visit the PDFzone "Discussions" area and peruse the archives for the PDF-forms Discussion.

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