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3 Programs Give Forms New Shape

RICHARD O'REILLY <i> designs microcomputer applications for The Times</i>

Like it or not, filling out forms is a fact of life in most offices. It also is a task for which the computer has been of little use because of the difficulty in matching up paper forms with computer screens and computer printers.

That is quickly changing, however, thanks to a new category of software that has helped automate this type of paper work.

Three recently introduced forms processing programs reflect three different approaches:

FormSet from Softview Inc. is a $95 program for both Apple Macintosh and IBM compatibles. It has a rich array of already-designed business forms that can be completed on screen and printed.

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FormFiller from Bloc Publishing, which costs $149, lets you train your IBM or compatible computer to fill out nearly any existing printed form. Your computer printer fills in the blanks on the form according to what you type on the screen.

Per:Form from Delrina Technology is a $260 program for IBM and compatible computers that lets you easily design your own forms with elaborate typography and graphics. Or you can work with its already-designed forms. In either case, the forms can be filled out on the screen and printed out. The data also can be saved in a database file.

A graphics-oriented program, Per:Form lets you see how a form will appear in print as you design it on your screen. The program has a collection of software “tools” to make the job of designing forms relatively easy. It works best if you have a cursor-pointing device called a mouse, although you can do everything with just the keyboard.

The heart of the program is a tool called the “comb,” which automates the placement of blank lines on a form. Many people use paint or drawing programs on their computers to create forms and have to endure the tedium of placing each required line individually and trying to maintain even spacing between lines.

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The comb makes placing groups of lines very easy. You simply indicate with the pointer where the lines go, how many there should be and whether there should be shading between any. The computer then draws the lines perfectly.

Text in a variety of type fonts, styles and sizes can be added to the form and the text can be placed both horizontally and vertically on the same form. Images imported from graphics software or obtained from a scanner can be added to the forms.

You designate the kind of data that goes into each blank--text, numbers, time, dates, check marks or automatically created page and serial numbers. You also control the type style that will appear when the data is typed, whether a blank can be left empty and what help message, if any, to make available to the user.

If this sounds just like creating fields in a powerful database, that is indeed what it is like. You can also designate calculated fields of data for which entries are automatically created in response to mathematical formulas based on entries in other blanks on the form.

When such forms are completed on screen, two things happen. A database-like file is created of the entries in each form. Then you can print the form, complete with all of its graphics. You’ll need a laser or high-quality dot matrix printer for best results, but an inexpensive dot matrix printer will work.

The database file can be transferred into virtually any database program, and you also can move data the other direction, from almost any database program into Per:Form forms.

More than two dozen already-designed forms come with Per:Form. They can be used on their own or as examples to help you design your own.

With FormSet, you get 70 samples that seem to cover most of the sales, accounting, personnel and general forms that a business requires.

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FormSet’s publisher, Softview, made its name with MacInTax, a program that lets you do your taxes on a Macintosh. It prints completed forms that so closely match the actual thing that they are accepted by the Internal Revenue Service. FormSet uses the same programming technology behind MacInTax, but there are no income tax forms among those supplied with FormSet.

Many of the forms that are included are quite elaborate, often including lots of fine print to instruct users how to complete them or to establish legal principles in business transactions.

You cannot design your own forms with FormSet, but those that it gives you have some sophisticated features lacking in the forms you could make with Per:Form.

For instance, in FormSet you not only can fill in a blank on a form, but you also can create a separate itemized list of the details that went into filling in that blank. A good example is the job estimate form, where a single entry, say “prepare foundation,” actually contains many tasks and expense categories that you need to keep track of but might not want to disclose to your client. The itemized list you create for that entry lets you keep records that never go into the form you send the customer.

FormSet also does all of your math for you. Naturally, entries that make up part of a total are automatically added together and the total is entered for you. So when you have an itemized list, its total is calculated and entered on an appropriate blank.

If any of the figures you use are estimates, or if you are missing data when you do a preliminary version of the form, any entries that are calculated are flagged to indicate that they are based on estimates or missing data.

FormSet data is saved as a file in your computer but not in a way that can be transferred into a database program.

Softview plans to introduce a companion program early next year, FormSystem, that will allow you to create your own forms and link them directly to database programs. It will use the same sophisticated features found in FormSet and MacInTax.

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As with Per:Form, FormSet works best with a laser printer, but it also will work with dot matrix printers. Other FormSets for other kinds of documents, such as government and insurance forms, are planned.

FormFiller takes a completely different approach. It assumes that the forms you use are the forms you need so it works with them instead of trying to reinvent them.

An example is the familiar blue waybill that accompanies Federal Express packages. FormFiller provides a way to teach your computer where to find the blanks on existing forms and how to fill them in.

It starts by putting the existing form in your computer printer and printing a special grid pattern over it. The grid is marked vertically and horizontally with numbers so that you can determine at what intersection of vertical and horizontal coordinates each blank on the form is located.

Then you set up the program to define what kind of information goes into each blank. There are math functions akin to those found in spreadsheets to enable automatic calculations. There also are “look-up tables,” where you can store frequently repeated entries so that they can be made automatic. There is even a way to make the computer check whether each form is complete before it is printed.

When you are finished, you put the form in the printer and your data is added to it in all the right places. Considering that many forms found in the real office world are several layers thick to create copies for distribution, you’ll probably want a strong dot matrix or solid daisy wheel printer rather than a laser printer for this task.

Three programs, three approaches. I can see ways to use all three in my office. What about yours?

THE PRODUCTS

FormSet, FormFiller and Per:Form are programs that provide ways to work with business forms on personal computers. FormSet $95, Softview Inc., 4820 Adohr Lane, Suite F, Camarillo, Calif. 93010, (805) 388-2626. Features: Contains 70 general business forms, including common accounting, sales, personnel and payables forms. High-quality graphics and typography give on-screen and laser-printed forms the look of those that are professionally printed. Some forms are linked to a summary screen from which entries are distributed to multiple forms. Requirements: Macintosh with 512 kilobytes of memory and one 800-kilobyte drive or any IBM or compatible model with 512 kilobytes of memory, DOS 3.0 or higher operating system and graphics monitor. FormFiller $149, Bloc Publishing Corp., 800 Southwest 37th Ave., Suite 765, Coral Gables, Fla. 33134. Features: Trains computer and printer to fill in and print on virtually any existing printed form. Spreadsheet-like calculations for computing entries. Can assign the order in which blanks are entered on the screen to differ from layout on printed form to make form completion easier. Will automatically fill in frequently used names, addresses and other data. Requirements: Any IBM or compatible PC model with 256 kilobytes of memory. Per:Form $260, Delrina Technology Inc., 542 Mt. Pleasant Road, Suite 402, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4S 2M7, (416) 480-0990. Features: Graphics display shows form as it will be printed, automatically creates evenly spaced lines, text in various fonts and sizes both horizontal and vertically placed on same form, graphics on form, database-like assignment of data fields for computer entry of form, transfer data to and from database program. Requirements: Any model IBM or compatible PC with 512 kilobytes memory and dual floppy or hard disk. Graphics monitor.


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