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There are now TWO different kinds of PDF forms

AUGUST 10, 2005 — If your company uses PDF forms, or if you?re thinking of using them, you should be aware that there are now two different kinds of PDF forms.

(What?s a PDF form? It?s a PDF file that has boxes that a user can type in and buttons that a user can click on, etc.)

The two different kinds of PDF forms are:
  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 or 7.x, and a user can interact with an AcroForm by using Adobe Acrobat 4.x, 5.x, 6.x or 7.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 (from companies other than Adobe) that allow a programmer to create a system that populates (fills) AcroForms automatically.

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 a few months ago, 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.


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