InfoPath Shows XMLs Promise

But Beta 2 of the XML-based forms component in Microsoft's Office 2003 has limited client support.

"Better working through XML" is the prevailing theme for Microsoft Corp.s forthcoming Office 2003 productivity suite, and none of its components carries this banner more prominently than InfoPath, a new application for designing and filling out XML-based forms.

eWeek Labs tests of InfoPath Beta 2 showed that, unlike its other Office siblings, this application eschews binary file formats altogether, instead storing form data in simple XML files, which derive their structure, appearance and validation from templates also written in XML.

The benefit for companies is that data stored in InfoPath can be readily passed on to any back-end database or Web service that supports XML, although InfoPath makes it easiest to connect to Microsoft SQL Server or Access through ActiveX Data Objects links.

For all its potential flexibility on the back end, however, this version of InfoPath suffers from significant interoperability restrictions on the client side. The full InfoPath client must be installed on a users machine to design or fill out forms, but the only platforms on which InfoPath will run are Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 and Windows XP.

InfoPath leaves users of Windows 9x, Mac OS and Linux—as well as users of Pocket PC and Palm OS devices—out in the cold, a limitation not shared by Web browser or Adobe Systems Inc. PDF-based forms solutions.

InfoPath does include the option of saving forms as Web pages, so they may be read, but the Web format that InfoPath uses is the Microsoft-proprietary .mht, which we were able to view properly only with Internet Explorer.

Microsoft is pushing Office 2003, which is slated to ship this summer, as a "system," in which the latest Office components and Microsoft server technologies combine into a whole thats worth more than the sum of its parts. However, Microsoft should make allowances for sites that havent deployed the latest Microsoft products and that wish to maintain mixed environments.

Of course, since InfoPath stores everything in XML, individual companies or third-party vendors are free to develop their own, perhaps more cross-platform-friendly solutions around InfoPath.

Although InfoPaths thick-client model for working with forms presents interoperability difficulties, it offers functionality—such as rich-text editing, auto-correction and support for working offline—that a more cross-platform, Web-based solution would not.