InfoPath less travelled

Desktop software has become pretty uninteresting in the last few years. Once, new software categories appeared regularly, there was real competition among at least two or three products in each space, and new releases actually had new features that made you want to run out and upgrade. We don’t see

much of that any more. So the two new desktop applications Microsoft Corp. introduced this year were a welcome break.

This column looked at one of those applications, OneNote, a few months ago. But probably the more significant of the two is InfoPath, known earlier by the code name XDocs. This new Microsoft Office package is designed for creating electronic forms using Extensible Markup Language (XML).

In case you’ve somehow missed hearing about XML, it’s a close cousin of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) used in creating Web pages, but where HTML is mainly for formatting content, XML lets you create your own tags for specialized purposes — that’s why it’s called extensible.

With these tags you can identify not just parts of document like titles and subheads but what certain chunks of content mean. So an invoice formatted in XML might have tags to identify the invoice number, purchase order number and amount due. Software on a customer’s computer could read the invoice and know how much to pay, to whom and for what.

XML can be used for all sorts of business documents, like order forms, expense reports, shipping manifests and the like. It makes the documents not just electronically readable but electronically understandable.

Yes, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) has done something like this since the 1980s — but EDI is more complex and requires specialized infrastructure, limiting its reach to larger businesses.

The idea of InfoPath is to let PC users enter data in XML documents, which can then be imported into any application that supports XML. For instance, a sales person on the road might capture a customer order in InfoPath. At the same time she might record some customer feedback. InfoPath could validate the order information — making sure the product number entered actually exists, for example — and then send the data in XML format to an order-processing system. The customer feedback might go into a customer relationship management (CRM) system.

In a sense InfoPath is like the forms processing packages of the past, except it relies on a standard formatting language that makes data recorded in InfoPath compatible with other apps.

No knowledge of XML will be needed to use InfoPath, says Scott Jackson, Microsoft Office product manager at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont. “”The great thing about it is there’s no coding.””

Other possible uses for InfoPath include performance reviews, various kinds of forms processing and possibly health-care applications, Jackson says.

Microsoft is also planning XML support in other components of the Office suite.

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