Acroforms are the original PDF-based fillable forms, based on the PDF architecture. XFA forms are XML-based forms, embedded inside a PDF. Here we will discuss the differences — and real question is, which should you use?

The webinar covers the following topics:

– The history and background and AcroForms and XFA
– Main differences
– XFA limitations
– Content reflow hype
– Markup, printing, accessibility
– XFA Foreground (XFAF)
– Budgetary differences
– Looking into the future and PDF 2.0

Acroforms vs XFA. Webinar transcription

Hello everyone. I hope everybody is in a good mood, good spirit. And today we have this webinar about PDF forms and more specifically about different PDF forms. And while we still wait for a few people to join, maybe a few words about me. I’m a principal at PDF Share Forms; we are a company that is specializing in PDF form integration with Microsoft SharePoint and Office 365. I have over 10 years of technical experience with SharePoint and PDF and additional probably five, maybe 5-7 years of business process improvement. And within all; a lot of those years; I know little things, that can either make a project fail or find a solution that maybe not that obvious, and I will share those that are relevant to the PDF today.

Today’s webinar was triggered by news that PDF 2.0 release is imminent. It’s got a new specification updated after 10 years. So it’s a kind of a big thing within the PDF community. And this, an updated specification is for the entire PDF format. And one of the notable changes there was the appreciation of XFA specification. And while it makes sense to me and it did trigger a lot of questions from our customers and so we decided to have this webinar. Our agenda; first of all we talk about how we ended up here, with two different forms in one PDF form. We’ll talk about the main differences between XFA and Acroforms and basically it will put us on a baseline to discuss less obvious matters. We can say that in order to understand the nuances we need to understand the basics first. So we will have a few demonstrations over the course of this, webinar. We will talk about the actual PDF 2.0 and future it brings in PDF forms and of course we will have time for your questions and answers.

Acroforms and XFA development history

Acroforms vs XFA - format development history


So let’s start with the, the background; actually PDF itself was developed by Adobe, inside Adobe, in the early 90’s. And later it’s probably in six years it became standard as a part of ISO standard to be a part of version 1.2. It has its own syntax, it’s very technically it means its whole language for Inner Workings we’re not going to go all those technical details but just so you know; and it is has a fixed layout. It was built for the paper, built in mind of replacing paper and make sure it looks like exactly the same everywhere. This is a PDF. And Acroforms introduced later in the version 1.2.


The other side of PDF is standardization. We all know that as part of ISO International Standard Organization, but it also comes with a price that Adobe was not really quickly to adopt, PDF form up to the changes in the last 10 years brought us. And right now Adobe is much better and they are producing good products, very sharp and nice looking products; but with the PDF it was very slow evolvement there. In the parallel the company JetForms introduced the concept of XML form architecture and then Adobe acquired this company in 2002 and 2003 they introduced the XFA or XML architecture into the PDF specification. It uses XML, which basically was a cutting edge back in 2002 2003, and it has a data driven layout. Basically data determines what needs to be shown, how it needs to be shown and they can call it a dynamic layout. The other part is that it is proprietary specification to Adobe; they did not include it as a part of PDF specification. So Adobe had their own part and most of the XFA forms today implemented in a Adobe reader; so as a background.

Main differences between Acroforms and XFA forms

Acroforms vs XFA - main differences


Now on the main differences, the PDF Acroforms; and if we look in the PDF as a portable document format, which it is; portable means it works on all platforms; if it consistently works on all platforms. As a document it presented as a document in a consistent way, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter if I use my iPhone or using your Surface tablet, or laptop it all look the same. It covers documents and forms elements but primarily its first a document and Acroforms covers that forms element.

With XML form architecture; the XML, it’s a data and schema are XML based and forms it just focus on the forms. So it basically this part of specifications just disregards all other cases. As mentioned layout is dynamically driven by data and what happens is, all this XML data is just put inside of PDF. So PDF is used as a wrapper. So we see the file that has extension PDF but we don’t know what is there until we open inside and determine if it is Acroform or XML form.

AcroForms layers

Acroforms vs XFA - acroforms layers


Now when we look into the Acroforms, we need to think about layers. There is a layer above the content, and if content is a just a text and tables and images; then form elements will be a layer on top of it. Basically we’re putting elements on top of the content and it becomes a two-step approach if we design Acroforms. First we define the content, layout, how the form will look on a paper. If I just print this form, without any interactive fields, I will just see it exactly as a paper for my neck and feeling with my pen. This is the content. This is the layout. Then you can apply the field elements on top of it and it becomes an interactive form, what we would call Acroform.

XFA forms XML architecture

Acroforms vs XFA - XML architecture

With the XFA, you need to have Adobe LiveCycle; XFA is very different. You start with thinking about your data first. You think about the data scheme, kind of architecture of your data, you need to think that if your data can be dynamic. For example like line items of invoice, and then you need to have an Adobe LiveCycle application. This is an application that you can design those dynamics XFA forms. The application itself is not expensive, and it’s like that about $300 if you buy it separately in Adobe, but it can be part of the bigger solution. Shortly, with XFA you build your user interface around the data.

So now I would like to do a little demonstration. I’ll show you invoice document and I’ll show you both, as a dynamic and I will also show you as an Acroform. So first I’m right now in Adobe LiveCycle I’ll show you the dynamic document. And basically you can see it’s an invoice that has some fields defined here; just put some information, and I have just one line for the invoices and a button – Add Row. So if I click preview PDF, I will be able to type something here. Let’s say we’ll buy pencils, or buy ten of those and for $1. And if I’d click Add Row its adds a row. Basically it says that line items as a data will have more than one element. And as I keep adding it’s changing. You can see that layout is being changed with the data. So if I put here, also buy paper, so two line items; this item is moving down. Everything is calculated. That would be an example of XFA form. Now if in the same time I will just work with the open this form; designed, as a static form you we see it right here. Let me make it a bit wider. So it’s the same invoice form, but numbers of line items, lines for invoices are predefined. There is no button and I cannot change this layout. I still can type pencils and it will do the all the calculations, but I cannot change this layout. I still can type pencils and it will do all the calculations but i cannot change the layout. So if I print it, it will always have about 12 line items. So this will be example of the Acroform. And this is an example of XFA form.

What is the cost behind having dynamic content?

Acroforms vs XFA - challenges of dynamic form implementation

Now who wouldn’t like dynamic content? I mean it’s the best, why wouldn’t we. But do we understand the cost? Do we understand what it will, kind of bring us, to make these dynamic forms? And this is what I would like to focus currently presentation about.

I want to talk about the things that maybe not so obvious, and I want you to understand and probably ask questions you know, how we can work with this and so on. So the first part; arranging printing requires extra effort. But let’s think about this one. If we go back to the example I was just showing to you with the dynamic form. How would we make that it fits all on page? What if I keep adding rows, how it should change? And in Adobe LifeCycle there are tools that you can basically define, you know, what there behaviour should be. For example, here I can, show if I select this section, for example, it defines, you know, what needs to happen if it’s repeatable and how the pagination needs to happen. But it makes you start thinking, how it will go if the content is switching to multiple pages, because it’s still PDF, it’s still all page oriented, even if it’s a dynamic one ;and what happens, as your pages are kept shifting, it becomes more challenging to capture the data. Most of the idea behind electronic forms is to capture the data. One of the ways to capture the data many larger organizations using it’s called OCR, basically it’s the scanning of the documents and determining the text, that is put in the fields and putting in some values. The problem with the OCR and the dynamic forms is that all that OCR engines does it says that invoice number should be right here. And the date should be right here. And in this particular example it’s all fine, because the header part is all fixed. But if we need to capture the grand total, we can’t, with the OCR, because if I go back here, let’s say right now grand total is 10 dollars and its right here. But if we would have a more line items grand total shifts down. So we cannot use an OCR technique to determine the value of grand total. There is a solution to that and one of them is to use 2D barcodes, it can be an answer.

Here is an example of the form, let me open. Basically, we add the barcode here and right now it is a QR barcode but you can have two different. It’s called the 2D barcodes. It’s not just  stripes but it has  more content there and inside the barcode you can put basically, as a developer you can put the values of your grand total. And as a barcode it’s more safer to read and it’s better than OCR in many particular cases. So if you have to use dynamic forms and you still would like to make sure that forms can be printed and later data can be captured – the 2D barcodes can be a solution for you.

Another approach is, to suddenly data electronically. And both Acroforms and XFA can provide this kind of ability and including the company I work with the PDF Share Forms. You know that our product PDF Share Forms Enterprise supports electronically submitting the data and I will show you an example later.

The hidden cost of the dynamic forms

Acroforms vs XFA - hidden costs of XFA

In 2004 PDF Association conducted a poll kind of: “What are your top disappointments related to the PDF?”, and two items are very interesting to highlight. One of them was – XFA was a problem. Sixty percent of respondents said that they overestimated their abilities with the XFA, and the result was a lot of work and a lot of budgetary overlap and project deadlines. So XFA is not a great thing when it comes to implementations. At least it was two thirds of respondents answered. But another thing was, finding developers. And the terms that was used “The kids these days think that PDF is boring.” They would like to have it all HTML, CSS… They all like to have the latest technology. It’s true. It didn’t change since 2014, most of the recent developers will still consider PDF is work, but this is a core issue; PDF Acroforms does not require developers, but XFA requires developers because if I go back to this particular designer and out looking at this it has so many different things that happen here. If I open it you’ll see it’s, it is complex. You need to have a developer to work with that. Which is OK. I mean it’s OK if you have such developers and if you will particularly a developer yourself and you like this one. I mean you are a hot commodity on the job market. I’ll say that.

XFA limitations

Acroforms vs XFA - XFA limitations

A few more things to consider with the dynamic form XFA. It was built on top of a XML and so it has a lot of limitations that you need to consider. Accessibility. If you designed the form that needs to be accessible, XFA has a limited accessibility support, basically ability to support the readout and ability to support people with disabilities to process the forms. Also XFA forms cannot use commenting and annotations, and in our business we have, I would say, a decent amount of customers, who use PDF forms and they need to do annotations.

Let’s say I am on some external site and do some verification of the equipment and I have an illustration I use just my pen to highlight where this issue is, so Acroforms will be a better choice here. Now, the most important is who can access this form, let me show you an example. Probably you saw it, on your own several times. So if I try to open, for example, this dynamic invoice, in a browser, I just open and select. For example Microsoft Edge. When I open it it’s using the browse default reader, and you will see this message. Oh! You cannot open it. You need to have Adobe Reader on your Windows or Mac or Linux. Basically, dynamic forms can be primarily supported by only Adobe products. There are products like Foxit and few other who support dynamic forms, but it’s still very limited. If I need to design a form that may be accessible for other people than my employees that may be a challenge because I cannot say them: hey, you need to have this product before you work with me. It’s kind of not the experience you would expect. Also XFA has undocumented features, like it’s a technical signature checksum but it limited ability of other vendors to support XFA and so it’s very limited support.

Merging XFA and Acroforms

Acroforms vs XFA - merging xfa and acroforms

There are also issues. We discussed two types of the documents forms, XFA dynamics and Acroforms, where Adobe came up with a third one. It’s called XFAF or XFA Foreground also known as a static XFA. I mean, is it possible to make it more confusing? I doubt! XFA is a subset of dynamic forms, basically to have only overlapping functionality with Acroforms. Basically everything that Acroforms cannot do XFA does not do. So what are the benefits you get from this form? Well first of all you can use the Adobe LiveCycle designer to design those forms and most of the PDF viewers can show XFA forms. I would say it’s very confusing for users and organizations when it comes up. What kind of forms are you using? A lot of the United States government forms are actually XFA Foreground forms, because a design in Adobe LiveCycle and save it as a static XFA. So they still can be view-able, in some areas and not view able in another.

PDF 2.0

Acroforms vs XFA - PDF 2.0

Entire idea of this webinar came form the PDF 2.0 announcement, this specification is about to be released this month. I didn’t check for a couple of day’s maybe it already is. It’s also known as ISO 3000-2. And, there were votes against XFA. There were basically 2 proposals; when 2.0 were considered. One, it is members basically saying that we would like to preserve everything as is and other members of ISO were saying we would like to depreciate, and only three members of 18 voted to keep XFA. And as a result XFA is being depreciated; but is also happening not only with the XFA but with the dynamic forms in many different. For example Adobe LiveCycle is just purely losing some of the market. Is there ab alternative to that? … PDF Share Forms – because customers ask us to fill this gap so we implementing this one.

What other alternatives are there to XFA? It is a PDF form generation, basically web forms; but then the problem becomes the digital signatures and annotations. This alternative is actually quite popular in some of the things. Basically, you capture the data in web forms and then you create a PDF document as a final document, it has advantages that you have a final document as a PDF, which is accessible by many people. It’s good for long term storage. The advantage that you are using entire business process of it. How about we just forget about PDF at all and the use Word or open XML. It’s not really a serious alternative unfortunately. Again with  Word you rely that a lot of people will actually, have ability to use, its ability to preserve particular fonts, long term storage. It’s not really an alternative.

PDF Share Forms value proposition

Acroforms vs XFA - PDF Share Forms value

It’s just a bit of a sales pitch. As a company of PDF Share Forms where is our value. We are integrating PDF forums with the Microsoft SharePoint, we allow automatically data extraction from the form into the SharePoint, in the document library or a list; add the logic beyond the formals you can validate against SharePoint list, populate. You can have an offline submission and digital signatures basically to make your form for enterprise use, if you have SharePoint – PDF Share forms is a solution for you.

Second demonstration

But I want to actually spend more time on a second demonstration, which I think would be more interesting rather than just going through the slides; so what I will show you here, is both a dynamic and static form. That addresses a very specific requirements just one of our customers ask us and let me just open this form. And we will walk through what is there. This particular form; has several sections. Think about these as the stages. Stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, draft report and in each stage we would like to show different section, very similar to the lines we had in invoice. So, if I open this form, let me open it’s actually in Adobe Reader right away.

Acroforms vs XFA - dynamic form sample

So when I’m, in a first job start I have a required field – project title, and project manager, and this section is always shown, and then comes job’s start section. Those three fields; and those fields should be available only when I’m in a job start section. As I would decide to go to the planning phase. Job start section disappears and planning phase appears, just was one check box – planing is completed. So you see this is an example of XFA dynamic form when, based on the data and data is in current state, we can change layout. Now, the same form is implemented using their Acroforms. With the Acroforms, this particular form first that I showed; it has all the fields here, but to implement the logic here, let me open it in the actually in the browser.

Acroforms vs XFA - acroform in a browser

Right now I’m using the PDF Share Forms product, just to show, how that whole thing works. So you can see, right now we have the same fields but Planning phase is disabled. This particular field we cannot hide it in Acroforms because then layout is static we cannot change the layout, there is no content reflow but we can disable it, and if I click on a planning phase, you see that job start section became disabled but planning phase become enabled. So again you can have a dynamic functionality, in Acroforms the same way as you would have it and let me open it right now in a SharePoint dynamic example. Zoom it out. You can see again, dynamic form, or Acroform. So in both those examples, I’m showing right now within the PDF Share Forms product and our value proposition is that you know basically you can’t just put the values here. We’ll call it “Demo Project with AcroForm”.  Actually before that let me.

We’ll put the value one, just put something. Just click submit; right now form will be saved in the SharePoint and data will be extracted. So you can have your dynamic logic with Acroform and if I go here; you can see PDF document is saved and the project name is extracted right here. Or you can be in your dynamic form, and this will “Demo project with XFA” value 1 and so on, and then click submit button and again form is saved in the SharePoint and a project data is extracted. So importance here, is it doesn’t matter what your requirements are, you can achieve dynamic functionality, as a basically disabling or enabling fields in dynamic or Acroform.

Questions and Answers

Acroforms vs XFA - questions and answers

Let’s see. We had several questions that you sent us before the presentation, and let me go through them and answer all those questions. OK. Now, how can we mimic XFA repeating sections in Acroforms? And again if we go back to the examples, we had with our invoice; when we say the repeating sections I would like to make sure everybody understand – this line, is a repeating section. Basically, I’m adding it as a repeating section. So the question is how can we mimic the same behavior in Acroforms? In Acroforms you do can enable it but first you again you will think what it will be for you to design the printable version of the form no matter how many items you have 10, 100 or 300. Basically you determine what needs to happen there. Basically you design your form.

If I would open right now, the form we using here. Just give me a second. Here it is, so in the Acroform I cannot change the number of line items but what I can – do I can enable one item and if I click add button here, it will enable second, third, fourth and forth. So you can enable or disable. You can probably show and hide but you cannot change layout. This is just the part of what PDF is. It’s a printable version first. You think about how would you bring to form first and then we just enable or disable data there. There are some cases when maybe you need to have such repeatable data that, Acroforms maybe not a right choice. That’s also possible; we’re not saying that Acroforms is always a better choice than XFA. Maybe XFA is the right choice for you.
How PDF forms can update lists in Office 365 SharePoint? The example I showed you here. This is Office 365 and it’s just an example. Basically form says if I go back to, I’m right now showing that product that, our company offers PDF Share Forms and within there you have a document library. You have a Content-Type type and you select which fields you would like to populate with which PDF fields. This kind of field mapping allows the data to automatically be extracted and saved in the SharePoint document library. If you would like to save the data in SharePoint please you also can you just use the different actions? But still it’s awesome.

Next question is – XFA licensing status. XFA is not going away, it is just PDF is not going away. It is just no going to be part of a PDF specification. As XFA was a part of Adobe proprietary standard it will remain as a private proprietary standard with Adobe. Adobe has several products, right now it is enterprise content management, I think ETP, and a document platform, and you will continue using it. But will they just remain Adobe specific. If you look at probably the last five years there was only a few players who tried to support the XFA, Foxit at the company provide the Foxit PDF viewer and PDF editors and is probably one of the few third party companies who try to support XFA and right now even they consider it dropping out primarily because of the limited XFA support of the going for.

Let me see other questions, now I go to trough the list that you put the questions here. This presentation I’m doing recording right now, so once we finish this recording we’ll just send you email and you can review the presentation yourself. So the question about connecting to Office 365 list with the content and, to document copy of the image.
Right now, integration for Office 365 with a PDF Share Forms is default integration with document library. Document library, basically is a SharePoint list just with, the ability to separate document, kind of with the list item and since PDF is a document its portable document format, it is a document and we save it a s a document. So inside this document, there are all the fields that we kind of put there and some of the fields data that is extracted to the SharePoint level so later if on I would like to sort of filter or group by project name, I easily can do it without opening the forms.So this an example when data exist both in SharePoint list item and at same time inside the document as a PDF.
How the PDF forms work with mobile devices like iPhone? Well, let’s just say that they working exactly as you would expect. When we talk about and then again when we talk about PDF forms its two different things Acroforms an XFA. Today XFA has very limited support to mobile devices, almost none, even Adobe Reader mobile does not support it on mobile devices. There is an attempt to present dynamic forms as HTML but it’s also limited. The Acroforms presented on the mobile devices are just fine. Basically you have two choices. You can open the PDF document in a browser or mobile device and it will be presented very similar to what we’re showing here, as this particular example.

Let me just open it. You see document here and it will be just a smaller screen and you will see exactly the same on your mobile device. But also on the mobile devices you can use Adobe reader mobile application. This is a free application from Adobe. It’s exist for iOS devices means iPhone, iPad also for Android and it allow you to open just to open PDF document itself and submit the data and if you have an integration with the PDF Share Forms you will be able to submit data using e-mail as well. That’s good for the offline cases. OK.

Here’s a question. Are you affiliated with Adobe? Oh absolutely not affiliated with Adobe. We are a PDF Share Forms company. We are third party vendor, we are primarily partnered with Adobe and Microsoft, but our goal is to integrate PDF fillable forms with the Microsoft SharePoint and Office 365.

Question. What are your plans regarding the XFA forms? Will you support it in the near future? Oh we support it in our current product it’s called PDF Share Forms enterprise. This is for customers who using SharePoint on premise, not Office 365 and we will continue supporting the customers because just because, it’s XFA depreciated from PDF 2.0 we’re not going to abandon existing customers who have XFA forms. As an XFA development going forward, I would say right now, not only our company but many companies kind of, taking   wait and see approach. We’ll see if there is a demand for XFA becomes dwindled, which is actually happening more or less on its own, or there will be more demand for alternatives for of XFA and we’ll see what can come out of that.
The question – if I’m would like to see how it works your product with an office 365. If you’d like to see how product works with office 365, I recommend I mean you just let me go here. You can go to our Website. It’s and be able to review more about the support of PDF forms in Office 365, ability to try the product. If you would like to try the product for your SharePoint on premise, Please, get in touch with us. You can send an email to me or go to our site and request the trial there.

What other features PDF 2.0 provides? There are a few other features, that 2.0 will provide. Most of those features are related to the printing capabilities and pre-press not related to the forms themselves. I think the important, change that 2.0 introduces – It’s a better security, safer security. It’s a depreciation of, for example, of security hash algorithm one, what we consider not safe right now, the algorithm. I actually have a little blog about this one later this week probably.

Do you support other platforms not just SharePoint? At this point we are primarily focusing on Microsoft share point and Office 365. We see if there is a demand for those platforms. We may introduce to there as well. But right now it’s primarily focusing on Office 365 and Microsoft Share Point.

And I would like to thank you. Hopefully this webinar was useful for you. Now you know about limitations of dynamic forms and the abilities that Acroforms can have a dynamic functionality as well, maybe not to content reflow but all other functionality, and thank you.