“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.
InfoPaths interface is very similar to that of the other Office 2003 components, with a combination of the formatting tools in Word and the form controls from Access.
InfoPath makes particularly effective use of the Office task pane, which helped us manage the form creation process as we moved through it. From the task pane, we could drag layout elements, fields and controls, and data bindings into our form work space.
InfoPaths formatting tools enabled us to select the look of our form elements as we would in a Word or FrontPage document, and we could apply conditional formatting to change the look of our elements depending on their contents. We were also able to apply data validation rules on our fields that were triggered by input into other fields on our form.
We could design a form in InfoPath from scratch, from an Access or SQL Server database, from a Web service, or from any XSD (XML Schema Definition) schema file.
It was very easy to get up and running with a form when starting from an existing data source. We simply dragged the set of fields we desired from InfoPaths data source task pane and then dropped them into our work space. The software generated a simple form based on those fields, which we could then customize (see screen).
An InfoPath template file consists of a set of XML files compressed in Microsofts .cab format that store form structure, appearance and validation information, similar to OpenOffice.orgs .zip-compressed file format.
When we started a form from scratch in InfoPath, it created in the background an XSD schema that resided in the compressed InfoPath template file (see screen). We could take the schema wed created, along with the InfoPath form, and attach it to and mark up the data within an Excel document.
We could also design forms by beginning with and editing one of the 25 form samples that ship with InfoPath.
Deploying InfoPath forms is mainly a matter of placing a form template somewhere that users running InfoPath on their desktops can reach, such as a network share, WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning) folder or Windows Sharepoint server. InfoPath doesnt handle security itself; it depends on the security model of the share or server on which it resides.
When a client first opens an InfoPath template, the application caches locally information such as field validation, enabling users to work on forms offline, with entered data stored in a local XML file.
Probably the best way to collect data through InfoPath is to connect a form to a database or Web service, but those filling out InfoPath forms can e-mail or otherwise forward these stored data XML files.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]
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Executive Summary: Microsoft InfoPath Beta 2
This second beta of Microsofts new InfoPath form creation application demonstrates the benefits of XML in Office 2003 by providing users with a flexible and friendly means of collecting and making available the sort of data typically gathered in forms. But the InfoPath client would gain tremendous flexibility if it worked on systems other than Windows 2000 and Windows XP.
(+) Simple, familiar interface; support for working with forms offline; potential for back-end flexibility.
(-) InfoPath client required for designing and filling out forms; client runs only on Windows XP and Windows 2000.