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Microsoft Gives InfoPath Better Pavement

Seeing an opportunity to give developers a head start, Microsoft Monday previewed the updates for its InfoPath platform for Office 2003 Professional Edition.

The update is scheduled for official delivery as part of the Office 2003 Service Pack release in June, but Microsoft said it made the software public now so that form designers could begin working it into their own software products. InfoPath is a front-end tool for gathering information from users within an organization and then sharing it in a standardized way. According to Microsoft product manager Bobby Moore, InfoPath will work with any back-end systems, as long as the organization has implemented a Web services layer. However, using it with Microsoft server software would provide the best user experience.

As a software tool, InfoPath provides a forms-based interface that lets users work with information in rich editing applications they're used to, such as Word or Excel. It then automatically generates the information in the XML format , which can be used by other enterprise applications. For example, individuals in a sales team might each fill in a weekly form; data from all the forms could be integrated and sent to the sales manager as a single report.

Analysts see InfoPath as part of Microsoft's strategy for locking businesses in to Microsoft enterprise products. "The company is trying to leverage its desktop assets, which already have huge desktop penetration, back to the server," said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox. (Jupiter Research and this publication share the same corporate parent.) While a company doesn't have to standardize, he said, "For all the pieces to work together, to get the full collaboration experience, you'd want to buy not just Office but SharePoint Server, BizTalk Server and Exchange Server 2003."

Responding to criticism that InfoPath's handling of XML is "crippled" or incompatible with the standard, Moore said that InfoPath complies with XML standards, while allowing users to define presentation as well, if they choose to.

"XML by definition is just data, the actual content itself," Moore said. Users save in the XML format specifically because they want to share data in an interoperable format, he pointed out. For those who do want to include presentation, Microsoft provides WordML and SpreadsheetML, two schemas available as part of Microsoft's application development kits.

"The truth is," he said, "we don't know that there's any reason customers would want to save the presentation if they're using XML."

Moore said Microsoft decided to take advantage of its Service Pack update delivery mechanism to supply enhancements based on customer feedback. "ISVs will be able to have software available soon after their customers download Service Pack 1 in late June," he said.

The enhancements provided in today's beta include increased support for digital signatures. While the previous version provided for affixing a digital signature to an entire document, the update lets users sign a particular portion, such as individual fields or areas they filled out, and it also lets users co-sign and countersign.

Additional handwriting support for Tablet PC users lets them handwrite onto an InfoPath field, with the input recognized and transformed into typed text. Tablet users also can now open and interact with InfoPath forms that are sent to them as attachments.

Developer tools include enhanced support for handling XML schemas, working with ActiveX controls and the ability to move between InfoPath and Visual Studio, so that developers can build InfoPath solutions using managed code.

While InfoPath is seen by some as a competitor to Adobe Systems' Form Designer application, Moore said that they attempt to solve different problems. According to Adobe's Web site, Form Designer lets users create XML form templates in order to present information in the proprietary PDF format or as HTML. While Adobe is trying to replicate the paper experience by maintaining presentation elements and print fidelity, "InfoPath was specifically made for getting information out of forms and into other applications," Moore said.

He said the W3C's XForms 1.0 spec has similarly divergent goals. XForms defines ways to create a Web form using XML, while InfoPath is designed to present form information inside applications.

The InfoPath 2003 Service Pack 1 Preview is provided as a free download, so customers that have already paid the licensing fee can take advantage of the technical updates and functionality at no additional cost, Moore said. Schemas are handled separately, as part of its royalty-free licensing program for the Office 2003 versions of Word, Excel and InfoPath.