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Thursday, October 30, 2003

InfoPath 

One of the most interesting products at the PDC in terms of the future direction and strategy of MS is InfoPath. InfoPath is a new Office product that will only be included in the Enterprise version of Office, which hasn't seen a new product in quite a while. Briefly, it is a product designed fresh, from the ground-up, to create and display XML information as well structured forms. It does this by generating a manifest which contains information on an integrated collection of files in industry standard formats. It is particularly well designed to work with Web Services. This makes it a good candidate for integration with Biztalk and SharePoint for human facing workflow enabled applications. Even more interesting than what it does, is what it says about MS's approach to computing in the future. The first issue is their approach to XML standards. XForms is the industry standard for working with XML forms data and InfoPath has been described by some as an XForms Killer. Here are some quotes from an article that compares InfoPath to XForms. XForms and Microsoft InfoPath
The InfoPath application is focused on providing a superb visual environment, of similar quality to the rest of the Microsoft Office System suite, for creating and filling out forms. In contrast, the XForms specification is designed to encourage implementations not to focus exclusively on visual media, but rather to define only the intent behind various data-gathering controls. The XForms specification gives implementations wide latitude in choices relating to how a particular form control can be implemented, though new CSS properties can narrow down the specific appearance of a form control. . . . InfoPath is built upon an impressive list of standard technologies, including WXS, DOM, and XSLT. For web developers modifying existing InfoPath content, such a design can be of great assistance. Other design decisions in InfoPath, however, tend to reduce the ability to use InfoPath with non-Microsoft browsers, platforms, or servers. For example, any investment in designing InfoPath solutions can be difficult to recoup in the face of changing to a different set of tools, no matter how standards-compliant they are. . . . Both InfoPath and XForms are version 1.0 efforts, and both are likely to improve substantially in future revisions. For organizations that have already licensed Office System 2003, InfoPath will provide an excellent means to automate data collection tasks. For use on systems not running Office System 2003, including Mac and Linux desktops, phones, PDAs, and even some PCs, XForms remains a better path.
In many other areas MS is doing a very good job of implementing XML standards, but then uses those standards in a way that makes life very easy for the user, but tends to tie them to an ever increasing suite of MS products. When more high level standards do not meet there requirements, MS has no problems creating their own solutions without waiting for the W3C or other industry standards approval.

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