On the Right Path
InfoPath helps customers automate and manage the process of gathering and sharing data.
- By Lafe Low
- September 01, 2005
Filling out forms is a bane of modern existence. Nearly everyone has a story about doing battle with some multi-page form in triplicate that has barely enough room in the fields to legibly enter your name, address and favorite color.
Microsoft's InfoPath is one answer to the burden of using forms to gather information, but that's merely its starting point—which brings up a bit of a quandary. InfoPath is one of those products that when you ask what it does, the response is likely to begin with, "Well …" and trail off with a long list of features.
True, its primary function is to help customers design electronic forms and use them to gather data. Once they have gathered that data, InfoPath can also help them share it with others throughout their organization. So InfoPath really does three things: it helps your business customers create dynamic forms, gather data with those forms and seamlessly make the data available to other applications.
Since it supports industry-standard Extensible Markup Language (XML) and virtually any user-defined schema, your customers can use InfoPath to create their own application forms, HR data forms, insurance forms, business process outlines or any type of process for which they need to gather, select and organize data.
A slew of InfoPath templates are available for download from Microsoft. Out of the box, it comes bundled with 25 pre-defined template forms, including:
- Expense Report
- Asset Tracking
- Performance Review
- Project Plan
- Purchase Request
- Meeting Agenda
- Travel Itinerary
- Time Card
After using InfoPath forms to collect information, customers can standardize and integrate that data with other XML-enabled applications. This can help with a variety of business needs, such as developing an employee performance management program, creating expense reports, travel requests, purchase orders, workgroup updates and status reports, tracking company assets, and assembling and distributing meeting agendas.
InfoPath has a familiar, easy to understand interface for both entering information and designing the form data fields. If your customers have used Word and Excel, they won't have any trouble using InfoPath.
Collected data is automatically updated in XML format so it is transportable and easy to share. InfoPath works with any XML-enabled database or server through Web services. It also easily integrates with server systems, which gets to another strong selling point: It can improve the flow of information throughout an organization. If you serve a specific vertical industry, such as healthcare or insurance, you could also develop custom templates to add value to a customer's InfoPath purchase.
Plays Well With Others
Because of its lineage and the fact that it supports XML, InfoPath easily works with other Microsoft Office programs such as Excel, Outlook and Access. It also integrates well with SQL Server 2000. Excel users can import data into a worksheet, either directly from an InfoPath form or from a SharePoint Services library (see "Collaboration Nation," p. 18). Outlook users can distribute forms (either completed or blank) within outgoing messages, even if the message recipients aren't InfoPath users. Customers can also connect InfoPath forms to an existing Access database and then use the form to enter data or query the database.
Your more technically minded customers can design forms connected to a SQL Server database or store their InfoPath files within a Windows SharePoint Services library. Using SharePoint helps customers keep numerous related forms in a single location. It also makes it easier for people to whom they are sending blank forms to export form data to Excel or merge the data from several forms into a single consolidated form. Customers can also establish connections within forms to import data from a SharePoint site or submit their form to another SharePoint Services form library.
Customers certainly don't need to be veteran scripters to design and create forms, but if they are comfortable with coding, they can use Microsoft's JScript (an object-based scripting language similar to C, C++ and Java) or Visual Basic Scripting Edition to develop more complex forms. Internet Explorer and other Web browsers can usually read VBScript programs embedded within HTML pages. Your developer customers can also use Visual Studio .NET to develop and debug InfoPath forms built with Microsoft Visual C++ or Visual Basic .NET managed code.
|Microsoft InfoPath 2003
|Release: July 2004 (with SP1)
Base Price: $199 (for Microsoft Volume Licensing customers). Also comes bundled with Microsoft Office Professional Enterprise Edition 2003.
When Microsoft released Office 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1), it included a handful of security and design updates for InfoPath. That Service Pack helps make InfoPath more flexible, stable and secure, while providing developers and form designers with more tools for creating customized solutions.
With the security enhancements in SP1, form designers can provide for verifiable signatures, partial signing, co-signing and counter-signing through enhanced digital signature support. A respondent filling in an InfoPath form can sign different portions of a form (for example, a survey or project approval form requiring sign-off from multiple people). They can also see an earlier "version" of the form as it appeared when the previous viewer added his or her digital signature. When a form is digitally signed, InfoPath form designers can also include additional information about the signer and more details about the form.
SP1 also brought expanded controls to InfoPath that let form designers specify how often files will be automatically saved, which helps prevent loss of data. InfoPath also supports handwriting via Tablet PCs, digital pens, automatic Tablet PC ink recognition (that transforms handwriting into typed text), improved e-mail attachment handling and the ability to work with forms sent as attachments.
With SP1, forms designers have more flexibility in terms of page layout controls. For example, they can insert page breaks for print versions of forms that will not affect form layout for users filling out the InfoPath form online. Your customers can also control the ability of their users to view data gathered with forms by job function or access rights. InfoPath 2003 forms are also fully compatible with the new Office 2003 SP1 updates.
It's also easier to submit information in an InfoPath form, by simply clicking the Submit button in the toolbar at the top of the page. And it's easier for designers to replicate paper-based forms with improved text font support.
SP1 also brings several enhancements that apply specifically to developers, including built-in support for tasks that would ordinarily require additional coding. Developers can now customize InfoPath forms with scripts and use Visual Basic .NET 2003 and Visual C++ to move between InfoPath and Visual Studio .NET (with the InfoPath 2003 Toolkit for Visual Studio .NET). Developers can also create, debug and build InfoPath forms with managed code.
Forms designers can swap out one XML schema data source for another or add additional data sources, including ActiveX Data Objects, .NET data sets and Windows SharePoint Services lists. The list of schemas a customer uses in an InfoPath form can expand along with their organization's needs.
Owing to its lineage, InfoPath has a definite edge with its tight integration with the rest of the Microsoft Office suite, but it is certainly not alone in its market space. In fact, given the attention this part of the market has been receiving, the competition is likely to get more intense.
Adobe has moved in as the closest competitor, as it also provides XML support and generates forms in either PDF or HTML format. Its Forms Designer software was completely redesigned and renamed LiveCycle Designer. LiveCycle Designer also provides a graphical forms design environment, so designers can mimic the layout of paper forms or design forms that follow certain workflows or business logic.
A grid layout lets designers add list boxes, drop-down lists, command buttons and check boxes. Forms designers can lock down design templates to restrict access rights and use digital signatures to validate identity and encrypt data. LiveCycle also supports the XML data format, so users can integrate with database servers or Web services, and it generates forms in Adobe's own PDF format or as HTML documents.
IBM recently acquired PureEdge Solutions and is integrating its PureEdge 8X Suite to support Lotus Notes and Domino and provide a forms-based application development platform. It also plans to enhance its Workplace and WebSphere Portal software to work with PureEdge to add offline processing, digital signatures for multi-part forms and improved attachment handling. PureEdge is already integrated with WebSphere and DB2 Content Manager, and IBM is currently working
on integrating Lotus Domino and Workplace software.
The PureEdge 8x Suite includes the following components:
- PureXML E-Form presents forms as discrete objects that a viewer can sign,
distribute or save.
- PureEdge 8x Designer is the design environment for creating PureEdge forms.
- PureEdge 8x Viewer is for viewing,
entering data, signing, submitting and
- PureEdge 8x WebForm Server distributes forms within a browser without requiring any additional downloads or plug-ins.
- PureEdge 8x Server delivers and integrates data within PureEdge forms with server-side applications.
| Key Features
- Automates data gathering and sharing
- Stores data in industry-standard XML format
- Integrates tightly with Office applications
- Adobe LiveCycle Designer
- PureEdge 8x Suite (owned by IBM)
- Partners can develop custom templates for specific vertical applications
- InfoPath helps facilitate information sharing throughout an organization
Marketing and Sales
Sales support for InfoPath comes from Microsoft in the form of training sessions, easily available XML schema and the usual marketing collateral support it provides its partners for all of its products. Some third-party solution providers can also help support your sales presentations for InfoPath by simplifying customer adoption.
InfoPath, Word and Excel use XML schemas that describe how information is stored when the documents are saved in that format. Microsoft has made the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas and accompanying documentation available on a royalty-free basis to help promote wider availability.
These schemas help your customers manage their InfoPath forms and data stores, as well as integrate them with other Microsoft applications. The Office 2003 XML Reference Schema set includes FormTemplate Schemas (the schema for InfoPath 2003), SpreadsheetML (the schema for Microsoft Office Excel 2003) and WordprocessingML (the schema for Microsoft Office Word 2003).
Microsoft conducts a series of hands-on training sessions for InfoPath 2003. These sessions can help your customers get fully and quickly up and running with InfoPath. They can also help you deepen your product knowledge or prepare yourself to develop custom InfoPath forms for specific solutions.
The courses cover the following subjects:
- Edit Forms and Work with Form Data
- Design a Form
- Publish a Form
- Business Logic
- ActiveX Controls
- User Roles
- Data Sources
- ADO.NET DataSets
- Digital Signatures
- Customize Merge Forms
- Workflow Support
- Working with Custom Task Panes
- Managed Code Business Logic
- External Automation
With InfoPath, you have a strong platform to create specific solutions to collect and move information with electronic forms. Using this to develop custom forms to serve your specific vertical industry or niche can be a powerful value-add.
If you encounter resistance from potential customers regarding the monumental task of converting a library of paper forms to InfoPath electronic forms, several add-on solutions can help. These include:
- FormBridge, from Texcel Systems, is a professional conversion tool that translates forms from almost any source into InfoPath. It preserves the appearance of the original forms, automatically generates live fields and saves hours building forms.
- ScanSoft's OmniForm Developer Edition 5.1 helps form designers quickly and easily migrate their existing paper and digital forms to InfoPath.
- Casahl Technology's ecKnowledge helps customers integrate, extend or migrate IBM's Lotus Notes and Domino data and applications to InfoPath (as well as the rest of the Microsoft Office applications).
Microsoft's general Marketing Services for Partners can help you create online or printed direct marketing campaigns
for InfoPath (as well as other Microsoft applications). The materials include product box shots you can download to use in promotional material, logo building tools to add your Microsoft partner status, a Business Value Advisor for Certified Partners (an HTML-based desktop sales tool that helps quantify benefits, costs and risks), and pre-sales technical support
for both Microsoft Gold Certified and Certified Partners.
The Final Word
It can be difficult to fit an application like InfoPath into a specific niche. It is essentially a forms design tool, but one with
several less obvious capabilities up its sleeve. InfoPath can be a straightforward tool for collecting and sharing data. It
can also be a sophisticated vehicle for
connecting to a SQL database to disseminate live data. Through its adherence to XML, data can be shared and reused throughout an organization. The data
validation, multiple views, flexible controls and Tablet PC support all add to a
compelling sell for InfoPath. The opportunities for partners center on InfoPath's ability to gather and share information, and for partners to develop custom
templates for specific applications.