I have now demonstrated Blackstone’s ability to generate printable pages to 12 user groups, lots of corporate customers, and many hundreds of users. While we have publicly committed to Blackstone supporting the creation of printable documents, we have not publicly committed to any specific output formats. PDF is obviously the most requested format, and so I think that it would be reasonable to assume that PDF will be supported. I have also demonstrated generating FlashPaper as a printable output. (Incidentally, these two were the ones most voted for in a poll on my blog page).
But, at every user group thus far, the first question has been “will you support RTF?”. The truth is that we don’t know yet, we have not nailed down the final formats, and want feedback from customers to help us figure this out. I do see the appeal of RTF, I also see the appeal of XLS (the next most requested format, although I am having a really hard time figuring out exactly what XLS generation would do). But what I am still trying to understand is just how critical RTF support is.
Put it this way, if we were to support RTF then we’d need to not invest resources in something else, it’s that simple. So, while RTF would be nice to have, I’d not want us to invest in it unless it were critical. Or, put differently, if users were to tell us that they’d upgrade to Blackstone if RTF were supported, and not if only PDF were supported, well, that helps put things in perspective. Again, I agree that supporting RTF would be a good thing. Heck, I’d like us to support every format you could ever think of. But, and realizing that we will need to ship the product at some point, we do need to think through prioritization.
Any thoughts on this one? Please share.

45 thoughts

  1. RTF is simple, fast and clean. However I get way more requests from clients to export stuff into Excel.
    I would rather see XLS support than RTF if I must choose.
    The why clients like the XLS is because most "get it" much more than Access. They for some reason love it when contacts and stuff are exported to XLS. It’s just easier for them to work with.
    So that’s what they want, that’s what we send them. So I assume that is why people are requesting XLS.
    RTF is great too. I use it for my customers that want to generate mailing labels. But when it comes to data, they want XLS, not Access or anything else.

  2. Ben, I think RTF is more important than PDF. While PDF generate files with improved graphical quality, they run in a slow plugin and are not so simple to be used in diferent enviroments like Linux, Mac, Win and etc.
    PDF is important, but some more portable format could be better. It’s my 2 cents…

  3. I’ve had requests from clients to export data to XLS in the past. I’ve always just given them CSV files and they’re happy. I’ve never had a need to export to RTF. I can see why that’d be cool (easy to just open and work with in word). But, to me I see almost no value to it.
    My company has written a couple of component for manipulating images (http://www.alagad.com) from ColdFusion.
    My MagickTag can, if ImageMagick is set up correctly, export to PDFs. (I’ve never done it.) I know a LOT of people use the MagickTag for this purpose alone.
    My Image Component does not support PDFs and I get requests for that on a reasonably frequent basis.
    Granted both of these components are for images and not documents.
    IMHO, PDF is much more important format to support than RTF for XLS. Any developer worth their salt can create a CSV file in a few minutes. And I don’t think RTF is very important.
    Doug

  4. Ben,
    I would very much like to have RTF… But, I couldn’t possibly say that I wouldn’t upgrade without it. The reality is that is a tough question, because it may be that the cfform functionality is enough to upgrade, but I might still prefer to have RTF over flashpaper…

  5. i’d like to have both. we just finished an app where we default provided PDF generation (using iText), then some consultant came along and advised the client that RTF (actually they were advised to use ms word) was the "correct" output format. luckily iText could handle that w/out much trouble.
    though i think neither format is a make or break for upgrading.

  6. PDF Support is a must. We have never had a request for RTF.
    If you had PDF Support, and Image Manipulation Support – I will send my credit card number for Blackstone.
    RTF – while it’s cool – and you could possibly do some mail merge, and other things with it – I would rather have Blackstone sooner than have RTF support.

  7. I agree that PDF is critical as well and also that pumping data into a CSV is already very easy (after all I am able to do this and if I can…)
    RTF has lots of possibilities though — I can spit out forms with dynamically populated data that the end user can save and edit. I already have an application that sends a web page into an RTF, but that is messy and a true RTF would allow users more control over the docs output from our application. In our school district we have a lesson plan database for the best lessons that our teachers have created. They submit them online and they are routed through an approval process. Once approved all teachers can search and grab a copy of the lesson to tweak for use in their classroom — it would be great if teachers could get a copy in RTF, a format that most are very comfortable with….yes I will upgrade without this feature since some other potential features look incredibly useful….but it is also a feature I would pay for either by waiting a couple of weeks longer for the final release or if it costs.
    Thanks for the road show — enjoyed your San Antonio presentation. Cheers

  8. Well… PDF is first and foremost. We already do this using the ActivePDF tools, to produce "final documents" for users to review/print. However, for most users, PDF is a "read/print only" format. Very few of our users have access to the full Acrobat package.
    Hence, our use of RTF as well, to provide a "save and edit" functionality. Some of the data we produce we need to provide to agents in a format they can edit, cut/paste, etc. RTF provides a good format that allows us to create print-quality output in a form that is compatible with the vast majority of users. We built our own RTF tools, but they’re very much customized to the output we need.
    Other development teams in the company do a significant amount of "export to Excel" work… this is usually done by folks writing client/server code (VB or C#). We’ve been able to avoid this for now, but it may be an interest down the road.
    Choosing not to add these formats to Blackstone probably won’t prevent us from upgrading. Adding them, however, might allow us to more easily spread CF’s usage to other parts of the company. Our "produced faster & cheaper" argument is usually countered with "but you can’t do ____".

  9. I think of all formats PDF and Excel are the most vital. While Flash paper is nice option which provides a nice tie in between CF and Flash, I am not altogether sure it is as compelling a format as RTF.

  10. For me, RTF is going
    Really
    Too
    Far
    Like other posters here, I’ve exported to txt and csv files for those clients requiring something they could bring into Word or Excel for further editing and formatting. PDF is the hands-down favorite for generating formatted documents that the client will *not* be expected to edit.
    Cheers,
    Oliver

  11. I’d be interested to hear what people do with RTF… is it just so you can edit it in MS Word? If so, you could start with plain ol’ HTML and Word will do just about the same thing.
    One of the benefits of PDF is that it creates a read only document so it can’t be tampered with (well, not easily and not by the "general" public).

  12. Sean,
    The only reason I’ve ever had an RTF request from a client was that a previous contractor had sold them on it as _the_ way to allow Word to open generated content. I showed them Word opening HTML, and RTF became a moot point. IMHO, RTF, while nice for portability, is outdated and should be allowed to die with what dignity it has left.
    As far as XLS generation goes, there’s plenty already out there to generate Excel, and Excel itself already does a nice job. Example:
    <table>
    <tr>
    <td>2</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
    <td>3</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
    <td>=sum(a1,a2)</td>
    </tr>
    </table>
    …saved as foo.xls will open as a spreadsheet, with the formula in the third cell working properly. There’s a whole set of CSS styles etc. you can set to control layout, and basic html (<font color="…) works as well.
    -Joe

  13. I would say RTF and XLS are unimportant. I already do native excel files using COM objects, so you won’t sell me on that point. I’ve never had any reason to do RTF.
    Brian – Corporate CF developer for 6 years. MMCP

  14. RTF is absolutely critical for me. I have a web app that collects non-teaching activities from college faculty members. They need to have the option to output that to an editable format. The document itself has to be in a standard format. Right now I use a custom tag to output it to word but the tag is a total kludge and I need a more flexible option so I can develop other report formats.
    Not having RTF as a report option would not effect my decision to upgrade to Blackstone but I would have to do a hardsell to clear it with my boss. Reporting capabilities with RTF as an output option would require no selling to my boss.

  15. If it can produce some xml document, then couldn’t one (easily?) write an xsl(t/fo) stylesheet to transform said xml document into a pdf, rtf, or whatever else is relevant? Couldn’t this process be packaged with the software so one could just select ‘Export to ….’, and the relevant transformation would be invoked?

  16. If RTF pushes some other feature aside, then I say don’t worry about implementing it. I’d be curious to know what other features it has to compete with–but I’m sure you can’t share that just yet. HTML/XML will work for newer versions of both Word and Excel, so I don’t see the point of treating them as special cases.

  17. i have to say, pdf is most important from my perspective, since its kinda the most proprietary format, and to ease the production of those, would be best. excel stuff, like some have said, is possible through fairly easy methods. so, pdf for sure!

  18. While I agree PDF is the most important, it sounds like that’s not at issue because it will be included anyway (a reasonably conclusion based on Ben’s statement and other MACR semi-official comments).
    Maybe my machine is just old (it is), and maybe it’s because I’m not running the latest version of Office, but when I try to open/paste HTML in Word it is very unsatisfying — hard to edit, hard to repaginate, etc. (this is especially true with HTML tables). I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve seen enough code in my day that reverse-engineers RTF documents (a nasty business, to be sure) in CFML applications that I would have to say that RTF is an "important" format and would be a very welcome addition to CFML. That said, if there is a direct trade-off with some other "important" format then we could give feedback about the relative importance.
    As for XLS — seems like if you have tabular data it’s already VERY easy to get that into XLS via CSV and/or HTML tables (which, unlike Word, open extremely well in Excel, in my experience), as someone else pointed out above.

  19. PDF please. And if you really want to knock our socks off. Allow us to generate password protected PDF files in order to protect them from modification and content copying. That would be most excellent!
    RTF…
    WTF?

  20. Like most others above, I say RTF is not really necessary.
    Most of my clients ask for Word or Excel (not RTF or CSV). While I do use CSV on occasion for the purpose of making my own life easier and would continue to do so even if if outputting directly to XLS were drop-dead simple… I can safely say that the ONLY reason I EVER output an RTF is so it can be opened directly in Word.
    My Opinion… Here’s the choice file formats in order of importance…
    -PDF
    -DOC
    -XLS
    -FlashPaper

  21. Hi Ben, I just got home from the Phoenix presentation.
    IMHO, if I had to pick one pdf is the format I would go for. Most of our clients want this because the average user can’t fiddle with it. I can see rtf as really useful in an intranet environment where a user could create stuff dynamically and then would continue to edit it offline but… I think there is high and probably equal demand for both. As other users have said, creating files for excel via csv is so easy that I don’t quite understand the need for an extra tool or tagset to do that, unless the export function would allow you to add worksheets to an existing excel file. Now that would be pretty cool.
    During the presentation you asked us whether we’d prefer to have the cfdocument or the report builder included in Blackstone if we had to chose one over the other. Although I went for the report builder at first I think now that the cfdocument tag (with pdf format) would be more worthwhile and time saving, unless I get to try out the report builder (…maybe as a beta tester ^_^). I am a bit of a report buff in my company because I’m supporting a number of highly complex reports, meaning, I wouldn’t really be in need of the builder for myself for this app, but it would potentially be easier for other people to get involved with support of these reports if they could use this tool.
    Thanks again for stopping by in Phoenix, it was very informative. I hope we weren’t too subdued a crowd, but the heat really takes it out of you.

  22. pdf = must have, because document is not editable which is very handy with contracts.
    xls = nice to have (workaround is possible with comma delimited text files)
    rtf = nice to have for label printing like Bryan already said, but a workaround is possible.

  23. Ben,
    From my perspective, we have 10000’s of rtf being created, this would make Blackstone a viable option to java. I already love the cutting-edge thinking in Blackstone. I would say couldn’t MM have a next release, then 6 month later put misc features like RTF/XLS and others into the product. As long as this is communicated and understood, Blackstone would even be a better product. Some companies usually wait 6 months anyway for the ‘bugs’ to shake-out.

  24. PDF is a must. It’s too ubiquitous to leave out.
    The nice thing about Excel is that, as an application itself, it gives users freedom. Sorting, subtotals, charting, formulas, etc.
    The bulk of the reporting apps display data in tabular format, and Excel just gives the users who need it a little more freedom than viewing an HTML table of data.
    RTF is nice, but the only common application I see is opening RTF files in Word. As others have mentioned, Word can open HTML, and MS has good documentation on the various style attributes to mark up the HTML for specialized viewing in Word.
    PDF and XLS address the large mass of customers. RTF addresses a niche. FlashPaper is a nice alternative to PDF in that you don’t need an external helper application. Everyone’s got the Flash player! 😉
    1) PDF
    2) Excel
    3) FlashPaper.
    My $.02

  25. Currently we are using a custom tag to generate RTF documents, some in strictly defined legalistic formats that users can then edit. The custom tag works, but it would be better if RTF generation will be part of the next version of ColdFusion. My vote is for RTF rather than FlashPaper.

  26. PDF is far more important than RTF. PDF can be watermarked and locked so it isn’t editable.
    I have had to produce report editing systems but we use inline editors such as activeEdit or eWebEditPro for that and users print from these never knowing it isn’t Word.
    An export to Excel would be far more useful. While CSV is great for producing simple data exports it lacks a lot of things that Excel is really good at.
    I regularly export into quite complex Excel report suites with the data on one sheet and pivot tables and reports on other sheets involving lots of code and formulas, VLOOKUPS etc.
    We’ve been looking at the Jakarta POI project code to create a slightly more seamless solution than our current kludge (we use a macro to identify the CSV and then import it inside Excel)
    Our corporate network doesn’t run the current version of Flash. Only the one that ships with IE5.5 or IE6. It does however have Acrobat as part of the standard desktop build. So Flash paper isn’t that much use in our situation.
    So PDF, XLS, RTF if you must, Flash paper as a last resort.

  27. I think instead of working on the RTF format, if you really wanted to provide a flexible and rich experience for both Word and Excel, work on generating Word/Excel XML, like the CF_Excel_XML custom tag found in the Developer’s Exchange.
    Now, I don’t think this should be worked on for the Blackstone release, but I think it should be investigated in the future.
    I use RTF now (CF_AveryRTF) to generate mailing labels, which is fantastic. But I don’t think I need more than this in terms of RTF abilities. Yes, it would be nice, but it seems that development should be placed where more people want/need it.

  28. As one of the oldest ColdFusion hosting providers on the block I can say with certainty that PDF support is by FAR much more requested output. I have clients asking what is the best tool to use or what do we already support for pdf output. I have customers running everything from goBCL to activepdf.
    I honestly can say that from my perspective that pdf would make much more sense for developers and end users. Sure would cut out more trouble ticket request than an RTF solution would.
    Greg Hedgepath
    sysadmin cfhosting.net

  29. PDF hands down is what we need in my organization. One of the requirements for an engineering document management project right now, is to have automatic pdf generation from an imported word document with coldfusion providing database driven header and footer info. Will the new PDF feature be able to handle such a thing? We have been looking at activePDF to solve this, but having it natively in Coldfusion would be excellent.

  30. Everyone’s vote is gonna be skewed towards their own needs and experiences, more or less. I personally never ever have a need for RTF. Sounds like PDF is a shoo-in, which I think is appropriate. I think FlashPaper has a lot of utility and is very nifty, but it seems like it’s more of an alternative to PDF than to RDF. Does nifty get points? Hope so.
    I also have to point out that CFX_Spell suggested changing ‘gonna’ to ‘gonad’, followed by someone named Donna, and then more gonads. Gotta love it.

  31. I vote RTF because I work with a number of intranet applications and the users like to generate their documents dynamically, then tweak them in Word or any other RTF-compatible editor.

  32. My 2:
    Clearly RTF is not CRITICAL – so don’t invest in it!
    Instead, if it’s a question of prioritization as you point out use the resources to invest in improving core functionality?
    You can ALREADY write/buy tags/cfcs/solutions to produce RTF,XLS,PDF via various routes like XML, XSLT/XSL-FO,FOP,POI,iText,ActivePDF etc.
    Same goes for image manipulation (different discussion)
    HOWEVER, there is nothing I can write/buy to improve the core functionality of CFCs or other language features such as interfaces,seralisation and dozens of others etc. even if I wanted to…well almost.
    Perhaps these core issues are being addressed in Blackstone. I’ll find out soon enough.

  33. 2 pro’s for RTF
    1. We use RTF for sending users their cv’s for stand-alone use. Users want to open,edit,re-use it in a large variety of programs like Word, WordPad, OpenOffice etc etc. So RTF is our buddy.
    2. Since a lot of our users work behind secured mailservers, we couldn’t mail them their cv in word format due to the possible harm of macro’s in doc files.
    I hear you guys thinking why not use HTML..?
    Our users think: HTML equals Internet Explorer and DOC/RTF equals Word. If they open HTML they get IE, WORD/RTF is Word thus editable. So much for user-experience…
    We also tried to simply write HTML with a .doc extension. Only Word 97 doesn’t support it (yeah they still use it alot). Personally i’m not that handy in building RTF from scratch not certainly not dynamically. We’ve tried several HTML2RTF, DOC2HTML2RTF, WHATEVER2WHATEVER. Not one program could actually generate a visually identical template.
    So that’s why…RTF is my buddy

  34. I have clients with applications that generate client proposals, one a retirement firm. Data on the prospective retirement client is pulled from a db, an RTF document I have made in Word is populated and customized, and is then made available to the retirement advisor. He/she then polishes wording in the RTF so it appeals to that particular client, and prints it.
    We were considering PDF for this initially, but since there are no easy ways for non-technical people to edit PDF’s, we had to go the RTF route. Building the document in Word, saving as RTF and then playing around inside the RTF code works, but it’s so incredibly time consuming, especially doing custom tables, rows and cells at runtime, working with syntax like
    ql li0ri0widctlparintblaspalphaaspnumfaautoadjustrightrin0lin0 {f28fs20lang1031langfe1030langnp1031 #CustomerFirstname#cell }pard
    Doing HTML to Word conversions won’t work, have tried all of them, none are accurate enough.

  35. I would prefer RTF over either xls or Flashpaper. Because:
    1) I can generate excel files directly from SQL Server
    2) I see no benefit to Flashpaper VS PDF
    3) Customers request files as "MS Word" documents all the time.
    Just my 2 bits.
    Steve

  36. Ben, Sorry I missed you in Chicago. I wished I could have seen the presentation. I had responded to a similar question a few months ago with the desire for Blackstone to support document creation via XSL-FO.
    By first generating an XML document (such as docbook), a FO document can be automatically created by predefined templates. From there a rendering engine (such as FOP) can generate PDF and EPS and RTF and other formats as well. Really no need to pick one over the other.
    And since XSL-FO is a public standard and FOP a Java open source tool, this will continue the excellent tradition of CF support standards in the communications and publishing marketplace!

  37. Ben, I greatly enjoyed your presentation last night in Denver. As for export formats, my experience screams to me that PDF is critical. I have never received a request, using ColdFusion or any other language, from a customer to provide something in RTF. I agree with most others in that XLS is the next most popular format. I asked around about why my customers request XLS format so often, and here are the answers I got:
    1. "I’m more comfortable using Excel than most everything else. I feel like I own the data more if I can manipulate it, ad hoc and on the fly, once I get it."
    2. "I will want to cut and paste this data from one Excel spreadsheet to another, and I’m most comfortable just doing that natively in Excel without any other programs."
    3. "I know I can sort data by columns the way I want to in Excel, I’m never sure I can do that in PDF."

  38. I say stick with the PDF and Flashpaper for now, the development looked great at the Austin presentation and I’d hate for you guys to re-allocate resources at this late date. The RTF support can wait for the next edition (my two cents).

  39. First, I would like PDF, XLS, Flash paper, Word.
    However…why not do with CF what you did with Flash Pro, release it in multiple versions. For instance, if you plan ahead and keep CF open code wise, maybe you could ‘promise’ an update to CF for sale at a later date.
    For instance, release CF 7? as a standard & enterprise version on day 1. Sell these for X & Y price. But tell the community that features a,b,c & d will be available in 4-6 months for $500 more as a drop in package to whichever version they buy. Or, make it a FREE upgrade to the enterprise version.
    Realistically you can’t include every feature request because of release dates and R&D cost. I propose that you find a few features like RTF which appeal primarily to larger corporate environments that might buy the Enterprise version (versus standard) and offer it as an add-on months later (since it will take more time to build these features) at either an additional cost or as part of the Enterprise (but not Pro since this doesn’t make MM more money).
    Obviously, some people will be pissed at the need to buy enterprise or pay a premium for the feature. Hopefully, if the list of the features are made known (as well as the price) when the main products are announced it can be planned for.
    The only other difficulties I can readily think of is the separation of code this will cause at both MM and in client shops. Customers will have to ask their Admins if they have the enhanced version installed or not or risk using functionality that doesn’t exist on their install. Hence my suggestion to include it as an add-on for Z price versus embedded in the standard.

  40. I think PDF will be a great step in reaching beyond the web. I can already think of powerful things to do with it.
    How much control do you anticipate having over the PDF itself? Page Size? Page position? Fonts? I used to work for a printing company, and had built an e-commerce app in CF. I had to settle for using CF to spit out a text file that needed to be manually imported into a page layout application. I believe you would have a large market in the printing industry, if some of these things could be controlled and combined with PDF templates that hold the static items of the final printing product.

  41. Great feedback, 40+ responses. I am going to read all the responses and summarize / respond in another entry.

  42. I’d just like to chime in myself here.
    Being able to generate editable documents would be VERY nice for us. We currently have an advancement system here at Duke that allows us to generate form letters on the fly based on a donor’s record… ie, their preferred salutation, preferred mailing address, preferred mailing name, e tc… along with different types of content.
    Right now, we generate this in plain text, which our users (generally) copy and paste into a Microsoft Word document.
    It would be great, however (and I’m sure the users would love it), if we could just generate the letter directly into a word-compatible document, with formatting and everything. RTF would suit this purpose nicely.
    After generating the document, the user could then easily make changes to it before printing it out. It’s simply not possible to do that with PDF or Flashpaper.
    $0.02 inserted.

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