|Microsoft Office InfoPath™ 2003 Service Pack 1 or later
This article was adapted from Jean Paoli’s foreword to Introducing Microsoft® Office InfoPath™ 2003 by Roger Jennings. Jean Paoli is a Senior Director of XML architecture at Microsoft Corporation. He is one of the co-creators of the XML 1.0 recommendation by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and he has played a significant role in the XML community since 1985. Jean helped start the overall XML activity at Microsoft by creating and managing the team whose software XML-enabled both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Windows. Jean was also instrumental in creating Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003.
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Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003 represents a revolutionary leap in XML editing technologies and a new paradigm for gathering business-critical information.
What is interesting and unique about InfoPath is the type of information it allows users to gather. It lets companies design and edit "semi-structured" documents, or documents that blend contexts or regions of meaning (the kind of meaning that columns in a database have, for example). Although InfoPath provides great design and editing capabilities within traditional forms such as purchase orders and equipment requests, it also targets information that historically has been more difficult to capture, such as business-critical data contained in sales reports, inventory updates, project memos, travel itineraries, and performance reviews.
I think of InfoPath as a hybrid tool because it combines the best of a traditional document editing experience, such as a word processor or an e-mail program, with the rigorous data-capture capabilities of forms. With InfoPath, form designers can easily design their own document templates that contain customer-specific schemas for gathering information. What this means is that the customer defines the overall structure of the information that will be gathered from an InfoPath template and the type of content each data element will contain. Being able to define your own schema is a critical business advantage because no one knows what kind of information your company needs to gather better than you do.
Most mission-critical data isn't typically entered into forms. Think about a typical status report that a salesperson compiles: it contains customer information, sales information, and perhaps information about particular customer problems and promised remedies. Such a report is usually created in a traditional document editing application, but it often contains data that will be used over and over, not only by the salesperson who filed the report but also by coworkers and managers. If the salesperson had created the report in a basic forms application, it could have been spell-checked or formatted. But because forms applications don't have the familiar editing environment that traditional document editing applications provide, they can be hard to use, and so salespersons often don't use them as often as they should, meaning that valuable information can be lost. Another drawback to using a form for this type of document is that classic forms are static on the page; that is, they can't expand. Such a restriction becomes a big problem when data is constantly changing and the amount of it is growing. Not being able to provide added information — say, an optional executive summary — makes it difficult, if not impossible, to convey the full context of the data. The result is that people end up using multiple tools to get their jobs done, and they often lose half the data they collect.
InfoPath is similar to a forms package in that it provides all the functionality you could imagine from forms, such as the ability to structure and validate the data, but it lets you do much more. It is a tool that gives people the best of both worlds — the ease of use of word processing and the rigor of forms, all within the familiar Microsoft Office environment.
The XML community has been trying to build a tool like InfoPath for a long time. XML is about creating documents in which the content is delimited, or set apart, by tags that explain the meaning of each piece of content. With XML, documents can become a source of information as rich as a database, enabling search, processing, and reuse.
InfoPath has been built from the ground up to understand XML. The underlying structure of the information in an InfoPath template is described using a schema. A schema describes how the data is constructed, in the same way that a blueprint describes how a building is constructed. Because InfoPath understands XML, customers can define their own business-specific schema using the latest XML standards. Native support of XML also means that InfoPath can send data using customer-defined schemas to back-end systems via XML Web services. InfoPath is the first tool that can gather and send, or receive and read, XML data from a Web service without having to first translate the data to the .xml file format. The benefits of this innovation are enormous. Because XML is the native file format of all the information that is gathered in an InfoPath template, there are no translation errors, and custom programming is unnecessary, which means that both development time and costs are reduced. This level of support in InfoPath also lowers the cost of developing new solutions that use this data because the data is represented and structured the way you need it from the beginning.
Many of the features in InfoPath are the result of a key architectural design decision to adhere to the XML paradigm of separating the data in a document from the formatting. InfoPath associates "editing views" with abstract data structures, providing users with familiar Office functionality such as rich text formatting, table and picture support, and AutoCorrect. It also lets users save forms to their computers so that they can work on them at their convenience, even offline. In addition, industry-standard XML schema validation and business logic validation in InfoPath prevent costly data errors. For form designers, InfoPath provides the same, integrated What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) design environment. So a form designer starts with a custom-defined schema and builds a template around it. InfoPath also includes a built-in set of controls that make it easy to lay out forms as well as a set of 25 ready-to-use sample forms.
Microsoft's long-term vision for InfoPath is really the vision behind Microsoft's overall Web services strategy: to make it easy to create, access, and share XML data between different systems on a network. InfoPath is the first end-user product that gives information workers the capability to exploit XML and Web services.