It is uncommon for a product to stay relevant for more than 20 years, especially in the IT world. PDF is one of the lucky few that has. Designed by Adobe in 1993 it stood the test of time for more than 25 years and to this day is one of the most popular and trusted document formats. And PDF 2.0 specification will be released soon.

It is only natural to use PDF as a replacement to paper forms. Generally speaking, there are two types of PDF forms – Acroforms and XFA forms. Acroforms are the original static PDF-based fillable forms.

On the other hand, XFA stands for XML Forms Architecture forms. So, XFA forms are XML-based forms wrapped in a PDF file.

The XFA story began in 2002, when Adobe acquired rights to the XFA format through buying out the company that designed it. Adobe decided to base their LiveCycle platform on XFA format, which made it exclusive to Acrobat users only.

That is how we ended up with two PDF form types from the same vendor and the confusion had begun.

PDF 2.0 arrival

It is official: The first version of PDF 2.0 or ISO 32000-2 will be published this May by the International Standards Organization (ISO). It is the biggest update to PDF specification since it has become an ISO standard in 2008.

This update brings many new features and clarifies the language of the previous version to make it more consistent and less ambiguous.

PDF Association put it simply, “PDF 2.0 makes it easier for developers to create tools to manage electronic documents with more and better features at a reduced cost.”

New features introduced in PDF 2.0

  • CAdES signatures and Long-Term Validation of Signatures
  • Unencrypted wrapper document
  • Document parts (DPart)
  • Various enhancements for printing and rendering-related features
  • New annotation types to support projections, rich media, and 3D-annotations
  • Geospatial features
  • Navigators, to support graphical representation of embedded files
  • Associated files
  • Pronunciation hints
  • Tagged PDF has several new standard structure elements and attributes

Deprecated features in PDF 2.0

The ISO committee has also been determined enough to get rid of some obsolete and redundant features.

  • XFA forms: Adobe’s XML-based form technology has been a constant source of frustration for many providers
  • Movie, sound: multimedia content is not compatible with the concept of a portable document format
  • Superfluous, redundant, outdated or non-portable information, such as the document information dictionary (replaced by XMP), outdated digital signatures, OS-dependent file names and rarely used standards, such as OPI (Open Prepress Interface)

XFA Deprecation

The most notable change for us in PDF 2.0 is the exclusion of XFA forms from the specification.

PDF 2.0 - PDF XFA form sample

XFA format has received a lot of criticism over the years and will probably fade away quietly.

This is mainly because XFA is owned by Adobe and not governed by an international community and the fact that Adobe plans to downgrade their LiveCycle platform to be just a small part of Adobe Digital Enterprise Platform (ADEP), their customer experience management (CEM) platform.

No one knows what Adobe has planned for the XFA which makes enterprise dependency on the format questionable.

Another serious blow to XFA format not being an ISO standard is that it is prohibited in all ISO-standardized PDF subsets that are used for archiving engineering and printing (PDF/A, PDF/UA, PDF/E, PDF/VT and PDF/X).

Industry experts, like Bruno Lowagie, highlights that XFA has undocumented features.

Pros and Cons of XFA

There is no doubt that XFA has its merits, but do they outweigh all the negatives? Let’s compare pros and cons.

Pros

  • Dynamic content or content reflow – The data shapes the document. You can have a variable number of fields or even pages in XFA forms.
  • Separation of data and presentation (package it wrapped in) – although it can be put as negative as well

Cons

  • Proprietary format – not an ISO standard which makes other 3rd party vendors reluctant to invest in development and support of applications capable of working with XFA
  • Very limited support from viewers other than Adobe Acrobat/Reader
  • There are no popular viewers and readers that support XFA on mobile device. Even Adobe Reader Mobile application does not support it. This speaks volumes about the format.
  • Complexity – an unfortunate case when having too many options to achieve the same task leads to unnecessary confusion.

Not that many Pros, right?

Conclusion

Until XFA becomes a standard and goes through significant rework, which is probably never going to happen, most organizations go with the safer choice and choose Acroforms.

JavaScript support in Acroforms, which is what makes these forms smart, is much better than in XFA. Acroforms can do everything that XFA can except reflowing content.

If you have XFA forms but are considering a switch to Acroforms, then there is nothing to worry about.

There are several products on the market that can do this for you.

PDF Share Forms still supports XFA forms in the Enterprise version of the product for server installations, although we do agree with Adobe’s decision to exclude XFA forms from the PDF 2.0 specification.