First it was NetDocs, then it was XDocs and now its InfoPath. Microsoft envisions that someday InfoPath and the rest of the dominant Office suite will not only be ideal word processors and spreadsheets but will also be the leaders for connecting desktop clients to back-end business applications, no matter where those applications reside.
This is the strategy that has led Microsoft to flaunt Office as a "system." Its clear, though, that the system strategy is evolving faster than the applications themselves. That said, Microsoft is getting close to adding real value to the ubiquitous Office, and InfoPath is the cornerstone of the strategy.
To be clear, Office isnt a system at all. Many of its components still operate independently. For example, OneNote is a nifty note-taking application that doesnt share the data store in the note-taking application in Outlook. InfoPath, when used as an offline client, adds another store. Word and Excel are moving to XML, but Outlook doesnt use XML. This doesnt mean Im not impressed with Office 2003 (see the review). It is clearly the best office suite out there, despite real competition (in the form of price) from Suns StarOffice and from OpenOffice.
InfoPath, meanwhile, is the slickest piece of software Ive seen in a long time. The ability to create custom dynamic forms is going to be a core part of many organizations futures. In comparison with browser-based applications, which are difficult to develop and lack the functionality of rich client interfaces, InfoPath applications are easy to develop and only moderately more difficult to deploy.
But Microsoft may not fully understand the market for InfoPath. For example, company officials claimed that government tax forms would be easier to use if they were dynamic and based on InfoPath. Unfortunately, tax forms typically must remain static to conform to legal standards—InfoPaths dynamic form capability in this case is an inherently bad idea.
Highly structured forms that contain electronic signatures are a good play for Adobe and PDF. Adobe, however, needs to come up with a strategy for more dynamic client-based forms. Well see evidence to this effect fairly soon, I predict. In the meantime, there is InfoPath—which will change how users interact with business systems.
In what year do you predict InfoPath will be relevant? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.