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Most service-oriented architecture (SOA) projects have a single but critical failing, says Shantanu Narayen, executive vice president of worldwide products at graphics and publishing software company Adobe: they do not take into account the wealth of valuable business information held in documents.

“Documents are the interface and currency to most business processes. They are a key component in getting people to interact with each other,” he says.

What an SOA needs, he says, is to incorporate “intelligent documents” – documents that, through the use of XML, can interact with other content, data, applications and documents. “Adobe’s interest in the SOA is more than a jump on the bandwagon. We believe that, with intelligent documents, we provide a ‘critical bridge’ between documents and applications. Because documents are the embodiment of human-to-human interaction, they make the SOA personal,” he says.

Independent industry analysts also support the intelligent document concept, although they use different terms. Joshua Duhl at market research company IDC, for example, talks of ‘active documents’.

“These new documents are living and dynamic. They can interact with other content, data, applications, and documents. They are highly structured, yet they are capable of changing their structure and presentation on the fly for different users, contexts or uses,” he says. For example, active documents can actively launch corporate or inter-enterprise workflows, he says. With varying degrees of embedded business logic programming, moreover, they can invoke functions at various points in a workflow process to automatically gather, retrieve, extract, integrate and analyse information from a variety of sources, and sent it on if needed.

This fits in nicely with Adobe’s strategy to use its portable document format, or PDF, as the basis for creating an intelligent documents platform. In this architectural vision, the Adobe Reader client software – downloaded to more than 700 million desktops since 1993 – becomes a universal client for reading XDP [XML Data Package] documents created from a combination of PDF and XML technologies, that can be made to appear either as PDF or XML files.

“That combination is powerful stuff,” says Narayen. It means that an XDP file delivered to an Adobe Reader will look like a conventional PDF to the user, even though it may have been generated directly from an XML schema by a remote application or web service. In the same way, a document created manually, such as a supplier invoice, delivered via the Adobe Reader can be expressed as an XML file when presented to a back-office financial accounting system.

The most recent step for Adobe in this ambitious mission has been the launch of its new LiveCycle product, essentially a server-based suite of applications that enable organisations to create, control and manage intelligent documents that flow to and from back-end systems.

Adobe plans a multistage release strategy to add new services to LiveCycle. The recent first release is focused on online forms (or eforms) and process integration. A release later in 2004 will add document control and security capabilities, followed by the addition of document generation capabilities beyond those currently available from Adobe products.

These will address many of the barriers that currently prevent business documents participating in SOA initiatives, says Narayen. “Documents are no longer static but evolving and LiveCycle will enable organisations to take advantage of that so that documents can play a key role in the integration of data, people and processes,” he says.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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