Microsoft returns to form with InfoPath

Data capture

Microsoft has unveiled a new XML-based product for the Office group which allows users build dynamic forms to share with clients and colleagues.

InfoPath, formerly codenamed XDocs, is a client application that combines traditional word processing programs with the data-capture capabilities of a forms package. Based on XML, InfoPath will supposedly also enable this data to be re-used within teams, across a business or by outside parties.

Microsoft demonstrated the software's capabilities at a recent US healthcare conference. The software giant showed how InfoPath forms can be used to route data using the Clinical Document Architecture (CDA) format, an XML standard adopted by health care organisations to exchange data. InfoPath, Microsoft said, can save its forms in CDA compliant format, which in turn can be read by back-end systems such as hospitals, Web services, portals or document-management software.

For instance, a doctor filling out an InfoPath-made diagnosis form could pull information from an external database to pinpoint the medication covered by the patient's insurance, check for potential interactions by polling the patient's file, and submit the order to the patient's pharmacy.

According to Microsoft, the product should also appeal to businesses because it will let workers with no real knowledge of XML to create rich-data forms to record, store and retrieve information more efficiently.

"InfoPath enables business to gather more than just raw data. They can enter additional details to provide the data with context," remarked John Vail, director of the information work categories team at Microsoft. "So rather than looking simply at a big spike or drop in sales for a particular region, for example, you can collect data that provides more of an explanation for why your sales have been affected, so you can mine, re-use and analyse your data more effectively."

However, using InfoPath may not be suited to all organisations. According to the Chief Technical Officer of Irish integration firm Propylon, Sean McGrath, InfoPath will not automatically allow users to exchange data within and outside of their enterprise.

"Just because InfoPath is based on XML does not mean that there will be a seamless exchange of information. Groups of users will either have to have the InfoPath tool set or agree to use a standardised XML language. Getting that kind of agreement when several parties are involved can often be difficult," said McGrath.

Microsoft's lead product manager for the information worker productivity group, Dan Leach, said in a recent Information Week interview that this issue was not a major concern because InfoPath also supports ADO (ActiveX Data Object), which will allow organisations not using XML to benefit from the new application.

Despite this possible restriction, McGrath believes that InfoPath will be a success. "It will make it easier to develop interactive forms, which up to now has been a lot harder than was necessary," he remarked.

Microsoft's backing of InfoPath is also likely to hamper the adoption of the World Wide Web Consortium's XForms 1.0 standard. According to the consortium, XForms allows authors to choose from the mark-up language of their choice -- XHTML, SVG or XML, when developing forms that can be viewed on a variety of devices.

Pricing for InfoPath has yet to be released and Microsoft has still to confirm whether it will be bundled with the next version of Office, Office 11, although this is expected to be the case. © ENN

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