The technology used to create, interpret, manage and process documents as well as images is creating a host of applications and market opportunities for value-added resellers. Although many customers will not necessarily know they need a solution, for example, that requires a combination of OCR and document management software, they can do a great job by telling Vars their problems and letting them put it all together.
If there is one company that has made a name for itself creating optical character recognition (OCR) opportunities for retailers, resellers and Vars in the PC sector, it is Caere Corporation. Caere has specialised in this technology and acquired its major competitor, Calera, in recent years.
Caere's hottest OCR product is Omnipage Pro for Windows 95 version 7, which the company says provides unprecedented ease of use and includes extensive W95-specific capabilities. The package also features OCR Wizards, OLE in-place editing and unattended schedule OCR.
Omnipage Pro has a 32-bit OCR engine and application interface. Version 7 provides access to OCR directly from within 32-bit text-based applications, seamless integration into Microsoft Exchange In Box, OLE 2 support and property sheet integration. The integration with Microsoft Exchange, for example, lets users convert received faxes in the Exchange In Box into editable text.
Omnipage Pro for Windows 95 is available in a retail upgrade version for $129 and a non-upgrade version for $499.
In terms of where Vars should look to sell an OCR-equipped system, the most popular candidates are any installations where there is a lot of evidence of document retyping. These might include legal offices, where updates to old contracts may require rekeying of typed documents; insurance agencies, where information is transferred from printed forms to an onscreen database; and banks.
Any organisation where paper-based documents are still in widespread use and which needs to be moved into the digital world is a potential customer for an OCR solution.
Caere also provides software to manage all the documents created on or scanned into a system. Pagekeeper is designed to read, remember, and retrieve key information from almost any source on a computer. It uses natural language processing technology to read and understand the contents of all kinds of documents, including wordprocessing files, spreadsheets, scanned documents, faxes and email.
The company says that Pagekeeper's automatic indexing capability analyses and indexes each file according to content, without any keyword input from the user. With a single command, it is supposed to retrieve relevant information and presents users with a prioritised graphical display of the material they have asked for.
Its built-in OCR converts faxes and scanned images into text files that can be read and edited on a computer. Pagekeeper's similar document search feature allows one document to be used to search others for related content.
Caere expects this feature will be used to sort through information from online services and email.
Although lots of firms produce document management applications, Caere's offering is a useful example of this category because it handles such a variety of image and application data formats. Data can be read from scanned documents such as memos, reports, and newspaper clippings, wordprocessing files, spreadsheets, electronic faxes from popular fax software, and a number of email message formats.
The real key to the appeal of this kind of application - and the reason it might be used to construct a solution for a client - lies in the way it can be used to index and analyse information with automatic indexing of documents as they are added to the managed collection of files.
A big brother to the kind of document management offered by Pagekeeper is the workflow/document management technology used in products from high-end market leader Filenet. In August, Filenet announced an enterprise relationship to provide Microsoft Windows and Backoffice customers with 'a scalable family of complementary workflow, document-imaging, electronic document management, and computer output to laser disk (Cold) software solutions'.
The broad-ranging relationship with Microsoft includes a series of product development, marketing, support and service initiatives between the two companies. 'Our enterprise relationship with Filenet is a reflection of Microsoft's commitment to partner with the leading companies in their respective fields,' says Jeff Raikes, MS group vice president of sales and marketing.
'Filenet brings to this relationship a market focus and an extensive solution suite for managing, accessing and sharing all information across the enterprise. It also has a strong Windows NT focus, and a large customer and reseller base that makes it an excellent long-term partner for Microsoft.'
Filenet has a foundation for enterprise document management strategy which focuses on providing a single source for a family of complementary workflow, document-imaging, electronic document management, and Cold technologies that scale from departmental workgroups to the enterprise.
Filenet, including its Saros and Watermark products, claims to have the largest installed base of enterprise document management solutions - some 2,500 systems - on the Windows NT Server platform.
Ted Smith, Filenet president and CEO, says: 'As technology and market share leaders in our respective markets, Filenet and Microsoft are committed to providing enterprise customers with scalable, high-performance solutions that meet the full range of document-intensive applications. Through our enterprise relationship we will build on our successes to provide enterprise and departmental document management products for Microsoft platforms that support any number of users and any volume of documents.'
The firms say their enterprise relationship includes a commitment to work together in multiple areas. There is also a commitment to the channel that will leverage and grow Filenet's Value Net business partner network, which it says has more than 450 Vars and systems integrators, including a significant number of Microsoft solution providers.
Filenet and Microsoft are sponsoring Insight 96, a worldwide reseller seminar series to be held in Microsoft offices, that features Filenet's complete suite of Windows NT Server products and will soon launch a seven-city tour in North America. It is a commitment to standards that is seeing Filenet synchronise its product development programme with Microsoft enterprise computing standards, including Office, Backoffice, OLE Automation, MAPI Workflow Framework (MAPI-WF) and the software giant's Internet strategy.
In particular, Filenet says that it is involved in defining the specification for MAPI-WF.
Filenet and Microsoft will work together on a number of marketing initiatives.
For example, Filenet is the premier enterprise document management solution provider for Microsoft industry solutions briefings, a programme of seminars targeting enterprise computing decision-makers which began in August.
One of the biggest events in the document imaging sector recently has been the huge growth in the popularity of the Internet, the World Wide Web and the notion of corporate intranets which use a Web browser. The intranet idea solves one of the most vexatious issues facing anyone who has tried to establish an internal corporate system for distributing imaged documents: what kind of software should be used to store and access them?
Standard HTML looks like it could be the solution. It is widely supported and can be effectively used across a number of hardware and operating system platforms. Add to this the fact that Web browsers have the power and the built-in flexibility to allow users to access scanned images held in HTML pages. Many companies are also busy tying OCR into the process so that document images can be turned into text that can be copied and edited using a browser. So as intranets are increasingly being deployed throughout major corporations, they will inevitably start using more scanned photographs, scanned paper documents and providing access to archived materials.
Integrating all these elements into a system that can properly support them will become a big opportunity to Vars - perhaps working in conjunction with Web site creation consultancies. Big players in this area include Caere, Netscape, Microsoft, Adobe and Novell, all of which have placed heavy technology and R&D bets on the success of intranets.
Adobe recently unveiled its Adobe Acrobat 3 software for sharing any document online. The company says that with version 3, mainstream business customers can use existing wordprocessors, spreadsheets, presentation and page layout packages to create rich, cross-platform documents that are completely integrated with corporate intranets and the Web. The package has features intended to optimise Adobe portable document format (PDF) files for browsing, serving and searching on the Net.
As a result, Adobe says customers will be able to quickly view, search and download PDF files directly within popular browsers, such as Navigator and Internet Explorer. Adobe also claims that Acrobat 3 greatly extends the ability of the average desktop computer user to get a broad set of document types into a completely portable, Web-ready format. This includes the ability to scan and convert paper documents into PDF files, to create and use highly formatted electronic forms, and to integrate multimedia elements into PDF files using dynamic controls.
'By integrating Acrobat with the Web, Adobe significantly increases the quality and type of content that customers can use on the Internet,' says John Kunze, vice president and general manager of Internet products and technologies at Adobe.
'Acrobat gives business customers a simple and complete Internet solution for distributing information on the Web. Corporations can represent almost any document online, including forms and paper-based documents, using one format and one application.'
Caere claims to have bridged the paper, electronic and cyberspace worlds with the introduction of Omniform Internet Publisher. The package is supposed to allow programmers and non-programmers alike to integrate electronic versions of existing paper forms with Web sites. It is also designed to enable the distribution of electronic forms and the collection of associated data over the Net and intranets.
The company says the product is aimed at corporations, educational institutions, government agencies and other form-intensive organisations seeking to streamline paperwork and online transactions.
As well as supporting HTML, Omniform Internet Publisher is also compatible with PDF and Caere's open form mark-up language (OFML). Most Net-related forms are created with HTML, which Caere says is effective for text, but limited for graphics. The company says OFML, working in tandem with Omniform Internet Publisher, provides the ability to create graphically rich forms which are virtually an exact replica of the paper original.
OFML is designed to submit data in the same way HTML forms do, allowing for the use of existing common gateway interface (CGI) processing scripts.
Omniform Internet Publisher also offers the ability to process forms data without CGI scripting to ease the management of forms on the Internet.
'Forms are the documents of business transactions, be it an invoice, purchase order, packing slip or questionnaire. For commerce to take off on the Internet, there needs to be a forms equivalent,' says Dean Hovey, vice president and general manager of Caere's imaging products division.
'Both Omniform Internet Publisher and the Filler plug-in will allow Web site developers to quickly create powerful, usable forms which can further harness the potential of electronic commerce.'
Although the whole intranet idea is capturing the imagination of every major computer industry executive, it is by no means a sure bet that most of the corporate world will be joining in. Indications so far are positive, but it is still too early to give up completely on traditional methods.
There is demand for intranets right now and all Vars would do well to be clear how they can exploit the opportunity they represent - without giving up on other existing opportunities.
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