What You Need to Know About Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003

With the release of Microsoft Office System 2003 in October 2003, Microsoft, for the first time in years, has added new components: Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003, a form-based XML data-entry application, and Microsoft Office OneNote 2003, a note-taking application. InfoPath builds on industry-standard XML to provide a familiar tool knowledge workers can use to create and work with data. Here's what you need to know about InfoPath 2003.

It's All About the XML
InfoPath lets users interact with XML-based data in a familiar Office environment. Many enterprises have standardized on XML as a way to pass data between services, server applications, and Web services, both inside their organizations and with their customers and partners. InfoPath lets you use prebuilt Office-like forms to easily create XML data without needing to know anything about XML. More experienced users can create InfoPath forms that conform to the data structure their organizations use. This functionality means that you can create custom XML schemas and apply them to InfoPath-derived data.

Two Modes: Design and Editing
InfoPath works in two basic modes: design mode and editing mode. In design mode, a technical user, administrator, or developer uses a WYSIWYG environment to visually design forms that end users will use to enter or aggregate and examine data. These forms can interact with any XML-based data sources, providing a truly transparent experience. The InfoPath design mode provides a visual representation of the underlying XML schema, allows for drag-and-drop insertion of controls, and includes content modeling and editing, data validation, and interactive preview functionality. This mode also provides a Publishing Wizard that steps less technical users through the form-development process. To help you get started, Microsoft provides 25 sample forms that you can use as-is or modify to better suit your needs.

In editing mode, end users interact with XML data by using the forms created in design mode. Because InfoPath is a full-fledged Office application, it includes all the rich data-aware features that we've come to expect, including spelling and grammar checking. It also includes data validation rules that ensure the data is correctly formatted whether you're online or offline, a key advantage of InfoPath forms over Web-based forms.

InfoPath streamlines the process of gathering and aggregating information. InfoPath's forms will be immediately familiar to most Office users and thus easily adopted. InfoPath is a valuable tool in each of the following three situations. First, you can use the product for an organization's internal processes. For example, the human resources (HR) department might use the product to collect employee information, including expense reports, time sheets, and related data. Second, you can use the application between organizations. In situations that rely on industry-defined XML schemas, such as the health industry's Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), InfoPath simplifies data collection and exchange. For instance, a physician could collect patient information on an InfoPath form and submit the pertinent information to a pharmacy if a prescription is required. Third, small teams inside an organization might use InfoPath for workgroup collaboration. Small businesses without robust server architectures could use the product to gather data, then post the results to Windows SharePoint Services servers, so coworkers could share the native data.

InfoPath is included in the volume-licensed version of Office Professional Enterprise Edition 2003; you can also buy it for about $199 retail.

InfoPath is an intriguing application that will benefit any organization that has standardized on XML data formats. InfoPath will be of interest to two groups of users: advanced technical users, administrators, and developers, who will use the product to create InfoPath forms, and end users who need to collect or examine XML data. If you're standardizing on XML, you should evaluate how to best use InfoPath in your organization.

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