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OmniForm for Newton

From Pen Computing #6 September 1995

I don't think anybody likes filling out forms. The process is generally numbing at best unless you have a compelling interest in the data being collected. Everyone has been handed the greasy clipboard and asked to answer "just a few questions." Or perhaps you have experienced the joy of taking an inventory with a battered legal pad and a blunt stub of a pencil with two microns of eraser left. Once you have your information collected you then have to transcribe the whole lot into some kind of report or summary. The whole process is tediously repetitive, time consuming, error prone, and boring. Sounds like a job for a computer! You may remember a few years ago the buzz surrounding the supposed successor to desktop publishing: form automation. That fact that desktop computer-based form tools never really took off may be because of the size and usability of the machines that ran the software. Even a Macintosh can be frightening to Joe Sixpack. To really replace paper forms, computers would have to be just as light, portable, and easy to use.

The Newton MessagePad is the computer for the job, of course, and a slew of developers have created form generation/data collection packages to fill the need. OmniForm from Wright Strategies may be the best of breed for general purpose data collection due to its superior ease of use and tight integration with the Newton environment.

Agents asking questions
OmniForm is a turnkey system that comes in two modules: one for the Macintosh or Windows PC to create the form, and a runtime package for the Newton. To create a form you select from a wide variety of data gathering "agents". Agents can collect many data types including text, phone numbers, barcodes, and magnetic strip data (like the back of a credit card.) Each agent is a wholly scriptable entity capable of validation testing and branching to other agents using IF, ELSE, WHILE, GOTO and many other commands. These commands serve to steer the form user as needed depending on the responses to the agent's questions. Conditional expressions can also be included in a script enabling the form designer quite a high degree of control in the creation of a sophisticated data collection system. Any agent may have its own help text that is available at the tap of an icon at the bottom of every form page. There is even a combination-type agent that allows the collection of different data types at the same time.

OmniForm's agents automate the creation, behavior, and layout of standard user interface items. For example, you can tell an agent to create check boxes with rules that allow the user to check all that apply or just a limited number. Text fields can be told to present themselves with a soft keyboard or to allow handwriting input. Multiple choice questions are easily created, even those requiring several long answers to choose from. You can even create a matrix of radio buttons allowing users to select from a range of answers such as strongly agree, agree, unsure, disagree, strongly disagree, or no opinion. Wright's programmers have done their homework. We were unable to devise a question that could not be asked.

Simple data export
Since OmniForm is not a database application, you'll need to export the data you have gathered on the Newton to a tab- or comma-delimited file for your favorite spreadsheet or database program. Connecting to the Newton is done via serial cable or, more interestingly, via modem for remote data collection. Unfortunately, AppleTalk connection is not supported in this release. Once the connection has been established retrieving records is fast and easy, but poorly explained in the manual. We had to bash around a bit until we figured out that you have to explicitly save each record individually as "outgoing" on the Newton form. We expected that the default would be to export all records, but that is not the case. Once the outgoing records have been retrieved they are removed from the Newton form, freeing space for more data.
Our overall impression of the product is very good. We created a ten question market survey form with conditional branching and simple help windows in about an hour. Anyone familiar with common database or spreadsheet programming will be right at home with the OmniForm editing environment. Most items are available at the click of an icon on the button bar or a quick menu choice. Likes: Intuitive VCR-like controls make it very easy to move around in a form. Complex matrix-type questions are easy to set up. Support for barcodes and mag stripes is very welcome for inventory and ID card data. Dislikes: Manual is unclear about importing and exporting records. The Accept button in the script editor and response editor is hard to find, causing us to unintentionally delete several scripts and response choices until we figured it out. Too many confirmations required in the editing phase.

OmniForm (list price $499) is a powerful tool for anyone who needs to collect data in the field. Scriptable agents are a very sensible way to direct the user to do the right thing at the right time, validate what they did, and provide help if they get stuck. If you're lucky, the next time you are asked to fill out a survey at the mall they will hand you a Newton running OmniForm.

Wright Strategies is at 1-800-666-1228.

- David MacNeill


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