Today’s blog is inspired by two things:
- The concept of the “Elevator Pitch”. Many of you will be aware of this – you’re in an elevator, and someone says, “So what is xxx?” And you’ve got just 30 seconds or so, to describe xxx clearly, succinctly and persuasively, before the elevator doors open and your captive audience is no longer captive. LiveCycle is complex, it can do so much, and the available literature can be daunting and confusing. So this is my attempt to condense each of the core concepts of LiveCycle into an elevator pitch – 30 seconds or less. I’ve also interspersed some of Avoka’s own products among the Adobe products, and tried to show where they fit in.
- The Aerosmith song, “Love in an Elevator”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrwYb8WOkb0 Enjoy:-) Parental Guidance recommended.
LiveCycle Enterprise Suite
A suite of software products from Adobe that allow you to create and manage “customer experiences”. Traditionally, LiveCycle allows you to create and manipulate PDF documents and PDF SmartForms. More recently LiveCycle also adds support for Rich Internet Applications such as Flash-based forms and Collaboration. Some people think of LiveCycle as just Designer, which allows you to create PDF SmartForms, but there is much more as you’ll find out below. The various LiveCycle server components run within a Java server within your organization’s network, or in the cloud. LiveCycle Server provides API’s (application programming interfaces) that allow you to call LiveCycle from any application.
When Adobe originally created Reader and the PDF standard, it was just for reading documents. PDF has gone much further than that, and has lots of advanced features. One of the most important of these is the ability to create intelligent interactive forms we call SmartForms. These can contain business logic and other advanced features to achieve two primary goals:
- make it as easy as possible for the user to fill out the form, improving customer satisfaction;
- ensure that the data captured is as high quality as possible (by using validations, mandatory fields, etc), reducing the amount of work required by the organization.
Designer is a windows-based tool for creating PDF SmartForms. If you’ve ever used Visual Basic or Access you have a good idea of what Designer looks like. Designer is very powerful, almost a fully-fledged application development tool, with an extensive application programming interface. Designer supports a specification known as XFA (XML Forms Architecture) and can create forms as either PDF or HTML.
Avoka SmartForm Composer
Like Designer, Composer also allows you to build XFA SmartForms. However, Composer is much simpler to use than Designer – it allows you to build forms very quickly, easily and reliably, without programming or design skills. Composer embeds many years of experience of Avoka’s best form designers into an easy-to-use set of templates, that control how your form looks and functions. Composer is targeted at business users or business analysts rather than developers. You can’t build every type of form, or every type of complex feature with Composer – but for the types of forms that Composer does support, you can do it very quickly and easily.
A Form Guide is a type of form that runs in a browser using the Flash Player. Form Guides are wizard style forms, presenting a page at a time with Next/Previous buttons (rather than PDF which usually presents a long form that you can scroll through), with multiple presentation styles. You can build Form Guides in a tool called Guide Builder, part of LiveCycle WorkBench.
LiveCycle Forms (also known as Forms Server)
LiveCycle Forms provides a number of services, but in a nutshell, it’s a server that provides an API that allows you to:
- Pre-populate a PDF SmartForm. Pass in an empty PDF Form “template” created in Designer or Composer, and a matching XML data document, and LC Forms will return you an interactive PDF Form with the data pre-populated into the fields. You then present this pre-populated Form to the end user, via email, a web page, or any other means.
- Render an XFA form as an HTML page. This allows you to support users or platforms that don’t have Reader. HTML forms only support a subset of the features available in PDF. Depending on the complexity of a particular form, two versions may need to be developed, one optimized for PDF, and another for HTML.
- Render a Form Guide. Take a Form Guide designed in WorkBench, and render it as a Flash form that can be sent to a browser.
In a nutshell, LiveCycle Output is a server that allows you to:
- Flatten a form. Pass in an empty PDF form template, and a matching XML data document (exactly the same as LiveCycle Forms) and it returns a “flattened” PDF document with the data inserted into the fields. Flattening a form means that the form is no longer editable, and is a permanent “document of record”. Output also supports PDF/A, an archiving standard.
- Print. Take a PDF Form, and output it directly to a printer.
Neither LiveCycle Forms nor LiveCycle Output have any kind of User Interface (UI) – Adobe provide the underlying APIs, but you need to build the UI yourself. FormCenter provides a pre-packaged and configurable self-service solution built on top of LiveCycle that allows you to publish your forms, allow your internal or external users to locate forms, fill them in and submit them. FormCenter also handles many other aspects of submitting a form, including user registration, form pre-population, attachments, payments, receipts, and data delivery. FormCenter also makes it easy to integrate your Forms with an existing Corporate Portal or Intranet site. FormCenter allows you to start getting value out of your LiveCycle investment in days instead of weeks or months.
Avoka SmartForm Suite
SmartForm suite bundles together FormCenter, SmartForm Composer with the appropriate Adobe LiveCycle Modules to enable organizations to achieve “paperless office” initiatives and automate customer facing business processes. Gartner have a great saying “85% of all business processes start with a form”. Sometimes we refer to this as Avoka Form Factory as it’s designed to enable organizations to rapidly & efficiently churn out electronic SmartForms.
At its core, LiveCycle provides a “way of getting things done” without any programming. Foundation gives you a flowchart-like environment that allows you to link components together to achieve some business goal. These flowcharts are known as an “orchestrations”. For example, if you wanted to pre-populate a SmartForm with some data from a database, Foundation provides a database component that allows you to extract the data from the database, and LiveCycle Forms component that allows you to invoke LiveCycle Forms and generate your pre-populated SmartForm. Foundation gives you lots of components in the box, and is extensible (Avoka provides many additional components, or you can build your own). You can expose LiveCycle orchestrations using Web Services, Java or Flex API’s, drop-folders, and more. You can’t buy Foundation on its own, you get it with any other LiveCycle components.
LiveCycle Process Management
Process Management uses the same flowchart environment as Foundation to create workflows that involve humans. Process Management gives you the ability to assign a task (usually as a form to be filled out) to a user or a group. The user interacts with the process using LiveCycle Workspace (see below). Process Management also allows you to create “long-lived” processes – the main advantage of a long lived process is that if one of the steps fails (for example, the database is down), it will stall, and notify the administrator, who can fix the problem and retry it.
Workspace is a web application (built in Flash) that allows an end-user to interact with LiveCycle Process Management. It’s included as part of Process Management. It’s a lot like an email application with an “inbox” and “sent” and “drafts” folders, but instead of creating and replying to emails, you create a process by filling in a form, and receive forms in your inbox to complete or review. Workspace also gives you the ability to attach additional files to a task, forward tasks to other people, get email notifications when there’s a task assigned to you, and more.
LiveCycle Common Services
LiveCycle Common Services gives you a number of components that allow you to do a variety of PDF-related operations. For example:
- The Assembler component allows you to combine several PDF documents into one, and create a consolidated table of contents, and page numbering, etc.
- The Encryption component allows you to lock a PDF with a password.
You can’t buy Common on its own, it is bundled with several of the standard LiveCycle components.
Adobe has two products for interacting with PDFs, Adobe Reader, and Adobe Acrobat. You can do more with Acrobat that you can with Reader – for example, you can sign a document, save a partially completed form offline, or click a button on a form that invokes a web service – you can’t do these things in Reader. Sometimes, you may want to allow your users to access these “extended” capabilities without having to purchase Acrobat. To allow this, you can “stamp” a form with Reader Extensions, which enables these extensions in Reader, just for this form. You can purchase a Reader Extensions license on a per-form, per Enterprise or a per-recipient basis. Reader Extensions Server is a server product that allows you to apply Reader Extensions to a form. Please see a separate blog entry: What is Reader Extensions?
PDF Generator is just like having Acrobat on the server. It allows you to convert many different file formats, including Microsoft Office documents, into a PDF. It also provides some other file type conversions, such as converting PDFs to images.
A digital signature is a bit like an electronic version of your passport, or driver’s license that you can apply to a document. The PDF format has built-in facilities for supporting digital signatures, and Adobe Reader provides really simple ways to use digital signatures. There is a lot of complexity to Digital Signatures, but in essence, adding a signature to a document provides two core capabilities.
- Once you apply a digital signature any changes to the document are either tracked or prevented (depending on the signature settings). Changes allowed in the document can be compared against another version of the document.
- If you receive a document with a signature, you can “prove” that the person who signed the document really is who they say they are. This is obviously useful for legal reasons.
A word of caution – rolling out digital signatures can be a little tricky, because the signature owner needs to be certified. You generally need some third party, known as a Certificate Authority, to certify that the person who is granted the signature is in fact who they say they are.
LiveCycle Digital Signatures
LiveCycle Digital Signatures is a server product that allows you to apply or verify digital signatures on the server. This can be used for a number of purposes, such as:
- Apply Digital Signatures: Sign a legal document with your organization’s Digital Signature before sending it to a customer. This allows them to check that the document really is from your organization (and they are not being subjected to a phishing scam). It also prevents them from maliciously or accidentally modifying the document, important for legal documents.
- Authenticate a Signature or Signed Document: Verify a signed document that comes into your organization – who signed it, and are they really who they say they are by checking with the Certificate Authority. You could also check that the document has not been tampered with since it was signed, and only allowed changes were made.
Digital Rights Management
Sometimes you may want to restrict who can access a particular document, or when, or what they can do with it. One simple way to do this is encrypt a document with a password – but it’s very easy for someone to provide the password to someone else. DRM allows you to encrypt the document, but when the document is opened in Reader, it first “calls home” to DRM Server, to ask you who you are, and find out what you’re allowed to do. People log in using their usual corporate username and password, and may be allowed to do different things (such as viewing or printing the document) depending on who they are and what policies have been set up. You can also change the policies after the document has already “left the building” – for example, expiring a price list when it is no longer current. DRM works with PDF documents, and also with Microsoft Office documents – Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (with an additional plugin.)
Business Activity Monitoring
BAM is a multi-dimensional data warehouse for LiveCycle Process Management data. It basically allows you to answer aggregate type questions such as “How many Change of Address forms did we process during 2010 broken down by month and state?” BAM is very good at answering these high level types of questions. It is generally not appropriate for administrative-type dashboards (e.g. “How many change of address forms are in progress right now, and how many are overdue?”) or for general reporting.
LiveCycle Data Services
LiveCycle Data Services is a server-side framework that allows you to more easily connect Flex and AIR applications into your enterprise. Without going into technical details, it provides a number of features that will make your programmers happy and productive, and your Flex/Flash applications perform better.
LiveCycle Collaboration Services
Have you ever been involved in a Connect session? Connect provides chat, audio (via Voice over IP or VOIP), shared whiteboards, shared documents, screen-sharing and more. It’s often used for eMeetings, online assistance, and eLearning. Collaboration Services is basically a hosted version of Connect, but rather than a pre-configured application, Collaboration Services allows a Flex developer to very easily integrate any of those Connect services into your web application.
But wait, there’s more…
Yes, I know, I haven’t covered Mosaic, Production Print, Solution Accelerators, Avoka’s LiveCycle add-ons, the free steak knives, and a few other modules. Watch this space…
Avoka’s VP of Marketing, Rod Hodgman, has taught me many things, but one of the most important is “Less is More”. I hope that I’ve succeeded in providing a simple and clear explanation of what the various Adobe and Avoka products do. If you do want more information, please: