New apps hold most benefit for pro customers, tablet users.
In addition to its Office 2003 suite, slated for rollout next week, Microsoft Corp. has a pair of notable new applications in the works: Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003 and Microsoft Office OneNote 2003.
eWEEK Labs recently got an early look at InfoPath, an XML-based form builder, and OneNote, a free-form notepad and organizer, which will be released as stand-alone applications later this month. (InfoPath will also be included in Microsoft Office 2003 Professional Enterprise Edition.)
By themselves, neither of these applications will be enough to persuade sites to upgrade to Office 2003, of course. However, we believe InfoPath and OneNote will streamline some Office 2003 tasks, particularly at large organizations that need to fully exploit Office 2003s XML integration or companies that are deploying fleets of Tablet PCs.
For IT managers who are actively using XML in heterogeneous environments, the biggest draw for the Office 2003 upgrade is the suites new XML architecture, and InfoPath makes XML more accessible and easy to use.
The InfoPath application enables end users to build XML-based templates for structured documents such as expense reports and automatically mine data from Word documents or Excel spreadsheets.
Using InfoPath will save time for some organizations because documents can be put onto a Web service for easy access as needed. The application is easy enough for beginners to learn, but more expertise will be needed to develop the more complex custom forms.
InfoPath looks and feels like traditional form-designing and form-filling software, and the applications XML underpinnings allow for platform-independent gathering of information across an enterprise.
The application will be bundled with Microsoft Office 2003 Professional Enterprise Edition, which will be available only through volume licensing. Otherwise, InfoPath will cost organizations $199 per seat in addition to the cost of Office 2003.
InfoPath comes with 25 sample forms that create an easy-to-use front end. In tests, it was easy to specify that the application should use a Web service to submit, for example, an expense report. On the server side, the document could then be redirected to other users or to applications that handle functions such as billing or accounting.
Office 2003s improved integration also means that users filling out forms with InfoPath are armed with the suites tools, including a spelling checker; IntelliSense, which senses what a user is working on and tries to fix errors in spelling; and AutoComplete, which automatically enters previously entered data into fields in Excel, for example.
It is important to note that because InfoPath can generate a form starting from any valid schema written in the Worldwide Web Consortium XML Schema language, users will be able to create forms based on a Document Type Definition or schema that complies with, for example, the Clinical Document Architecture health care XML standard. Tablet PC users will be able to sign documents with handwritten signatures.
We found InfoPath easy to use, but the task of designing InfoPath forms should most likely need to be handled by IT departments. Organizations should also factor in what could be significant training costs, depending on the level of sophistication, as well as user support and help desk costs for the application.
Microsoft may have managed to make XML user-friendly, but organizations hoping to use InfoPath outside the Office suite can count on some integration and development tinkering before everything will interoperate.