Once you have the data side of things sorted out, the process of creating forms is simplified with a drag-and-drop interface and intuitive controls. The design process resembles creating forms within Visual Studio or other development tools except that no coding is required. One of the real standout features within InfoPath is the data validation, which lets you establish validation rules to ensure that the data entered into your form is correct and valid. Although you can't possibly trap every data entry error or typo that could occur, these validation rules should ensure that the data entered is clean and correct, which is a major concern.
Using InfoPath, you can create forms to meet just about any use. There are a number of specialized controls for creating forms with repeating tables or sections, and you can include optional sections that are collapsible so the user only expands and completes the section where required.
InfoPath also supports multiple "views" within a single form, letting you neatly organize form content and eliminating forms that require you to scroll down through multiple pages.
Some Room for Improvement
For power users, the base functionality provided within the InfoPath form designer should meet the majority of their needs, but for hard-core developers looking to create some code, InfoPath supports both Jscript and VBScript scripting. This feature lets developers augment existing InfoPath functionality using a familiar scripting language and environment. Developers will need to have a good understanding of XML as well as some patience, as the debugging tools provided with InfoPath are weak.
You can also create simple workflow applications with InfoPath forms using Outlook 2003 and the built-in email functionality to send forms between users (see Figure 1), but if you want to create more complex workflow or processing applications you may need to consider implementing InfoPath alongside Microsoft BizTalk Server.
And when developing and distributing InfoPath forms, there's one catch each user who will be filling out an InfoPath form will to have a license and will need to have InfoPath installed locally on his or her machine. This can be a deterrent for larger, price-sensitive organizations that may prefer to continue to create custom Web forms or applications rather than buy an InfoPath license for everyone in the organization. When evaluating the cost of the licensing, keep in mind that with one license you can create and distribute as many forms as you like. When you factor in the cost of creating, hosting, and maintaining custom applications for data collection, a one-time InfoPath license may be cheaper in the long run.
Another feature that needs some work is the database support provided within InfoPath. For organizations that don't use Microsoft SQL Server or Access, some extra work is required to integrate InfoPath forms with other database formats. It would be nice to see Microsoft open up this functionality so you could use InfoPath forms to directly update other database formats as well. Although it's a great selling point for Microsoft's database platform if organizations that don't currently use SQL Server consider deploying at least one SQL Server to make data collection easier. (And once the data is on the SQL Server platform you can then use the built-in Data Transformation Services or other tools to update other core systems.)
Some That Will And Some That Won't
So for organizations that use Microsoft back-end technology, implementing and using InfoPath will be a breeze. For organizations that use other back-end databases or systems, a little more work will be required to integrate InfoPath (using Web services, XML files, and so on), but it is still a viable solution for data collection and consolidation. Only time will tell if organizations will adopt InfoPath the major hurdle will not be in recognizing the need for such a product, it will be weaning users off storing data in their existing Office documents.
David McAmis [[email protected]] is an IT consultant, journalist, author, broadcaster, and expert in business intelligence who lives and works in Sydney, Australia.
"A Quick Alternative," Sept. 1, 2003
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