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InfoPath 2003 gets another patty

If you're of a certain age, you probably remember Clara Peller in the Wendy's commercials complaining, "Where's the beef?" I heard much the same reaction from many developers when InfoPath 2003 shipped with Office 2003 last fall; it wasn't at all clear what this new software was good for or how to best use it in an organization. Well, this week Microsoft is adding some extra beef to the InfoPath burger.

If you've got a reasonably fast connection, you can hop over to the Microsoft site and download the InfoPath 2003 Service Pack 1 Preview and InfoPath 2003 Toolkit for Visual Studio .NET. Together, I suspect these are the pieces that the InfoPath team would have liked to ship in their first public release, if they hadn't been tied to the Office release schedule. You'll find new features and new programmability here, as well as the inevitable bug fixes (which Microsoft refers to as "Technical Updates" in its accompanying press release.

Here are some quick highlights of what you'll find that's new in these releases, which are scheduled to be final as part of Office 2003 SP1 in a few months:

  • Visual Studio .NET programmability, along the lines of the Visual Studio Tools for Office.
  • Support for digital signatures
  • More flexible form layouts (anyone who's struggled with the current "I know better than you do" designer will appreciate this)
  • More control choices
  • More support for complex schemas
  • Ink support on Tablet PCs (a critical update for those using InfoPath as a mobile data collection tool)
  • Integration with SharePoint lists
  • An improved data model

Even with all these updates, though, there's still a problem with InfoPath that I wish Microsoft would address: they need a clear, consistent message about what the heck this thing is good for. Microsoft's InfoPath FAQ, for example, explains it this way: "InfoPath 2003 can help teams and organizations efficiently gather the information they need through rich, dynamic forms. The information collected can then easily be reused throughout organizations and across business processes because InfoPath 2003 supports industry-standard Extensible Markup Language (XML) using any customer-defined schema. InfoPath 2003 customers who share information across their organizations and business processes can have greater business impact." Well, maybe that makes sense to the bosses and marketers, but there's not a whole lot there that developers can get their teeth into.

The issue gets further muddied when you start poking around in the product. You'll find a forms designer, to be sure (though a woefully underpowered one compared to that found in just about any other forms-oriented product). You'll find a piece to automatically update databases. You'll find hooks for Web services. You'll find the familiar Microsoft Script Editor. You'll find XPath expressions. You'll find SharePoint. You'll find a rather clunky interface for building validation rules. But the question is, how do you tie all of this together into a mental model?

Here's my advice: forget all the bells and whistles. Oh, sure, they're useful; but like any other Microsoft team, the InfoPath folks tried to cram everything into the box that was remotely related to their core purpose. And what is that core purpose? Here's my one-sentence summary: InfoPath is a tool that lets end users create XML files matching a particular schema without ever seeing an angle bracket. Really, that's the basic idea here. XML is, as you've no doubt been told far too many times, a standard for data interchange between just about everything these days. InfoPath lets you as developer specify an XML schema, and then turn users loose to make XML files matching that schema. It's then up to you to do something with them.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.

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