Introduction to Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003
Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003 is a form creation program allowing seamless integration of data with various databases, Web services, XML, or any other XML-enabled system.To create the input forms, you just drag and drop controls onto the InfoPath form and specify how the controls connect to the data that is either entered in the form or referenced from external data sources. The result is a data entry form with advanced controls that conforms to Microsoft's interface standards, complete with Microsoft Office 2003 toolbars. Information entered in an InfoPath 2003 form is saved as an XML file and can be processed by a backend system.
It's Monday. After arriving at the office, you fill out last week's timesheet (Microsoft Excel), your expense report (a handwritten form), and your project status report (Microsoft Word). When you print these forms, you notice that soon you'll need a new printer cartridge, so you e-mail a purchase request to the office manager using Microsoft Outlook. You also just brought back a book you'd borrowed from the company library, so you go to the internal Wiki and record that you've returned the book.
Paper forms, Excel, Word, Outlook, and the Wiki do an adequate job of allowing users to track information, but it seems there should be an easier way to gather, store, manage, and reuse this type of data across various applications. In fact, with your current suite of applications, information must often be re-entered in multiple systems, costing both time and data integrity. Of course, you could custom write or purchase several applications to perform these tasks, but these very basic needs shouldn't be a big investment of time or money to handle. There should be a single application that allows simple data entry and easy integration of the data to other applications. Microsoft recognized this void in their Office application suite and, last autumn, InfoPath 2003 was unveiled.
Where's the Data?
InfoPath 2003 is an application that creates forms and shares data. At this point, your first questions are probably the same as ours. Where does the data get stored? What's the big deal; I can do that with Microsoft Access or Microsoft .NET.
InfoPath 2003 automatically insures that all users have the latest version of a form by providing transparent upgrades
InfoPath 2003 does not have its own database. Instead, InfoPath 2003 supports interoperability with various data sources using standard protocols such as XML (schemas or XML data files), ADO (Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Access, etc.), and Web services. InfoPath 2003's support for Web services allows you to create forms based on XML data that can be retrieved and submitted using Web services, creating a rich client interface for Web services' XML data. InfoPath 2003 can also save the raw XML file to a local PC if there is a need to work offline. Under the hood, InfoPath 2003 totally relies on XML technologies, using XML files (with the .XSF extension) to store all the metadata about the form, XSD (XML schemas) and scripts for data validation, and XSLT to perform a view transformation on the XML data. (Note that DTD, XDR, and XForms are not supported.) The resulting view is HTML.
InfoPath 2003 is different from tools like Access and .NET in that, technically speaking, tools like Access and .NET are used for storing and reporting structured and relational data, and InfoPath 2003 is used for semi-structured data. With InfoPath 2003, you can have tables, nested data, and text fields. InfoPath has built-in support for creating dynamic forms that can expand or shrink according to the information gathering needs of the end user. Incorporating this ability into the form does not require any special coding or customization. In fact, InfoPath 2003's power lies in its ease-of-use (it doesn't necessarily take a developer to set up and deploy a form), its rich interface, and its ability to easily create generic XML data that can be integrated into other systems. InfoPath 2003 is simply a robust interface for collecting miscellaneous pieces of data that can be used by other applications. It alone does not create full-blown applications.
Let's Take a Look
When you first build a form in InfoPath 2003, you have the choice of either starting from scratch or modifying one of the 25 included templates. These templates cover a wide range of typical tasks from purchase requests to sales reports. They provide good coverage of the range, power, and ease-of-use built into InfoPath 2003 and can be easily customized to meet your particular business' needs. All of the included templates use XML to connect to the backend data.
Let's create a form to add books to the company library. The problem domain is easy to understand and the structure for the data is fairly simple (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The company library database consists of five tables: Authors, Titles, Author_Titles_XL (a cross-link table between Authors and Titles), Categories (the title's topic or genre), and Readers (to whom the title is checked out).
Starting up InfoPath 2003 in Design mode presents two workspace areas: the form area and the task pane area. The form area is where you will spend most of your form design time and the task pane provides quick access to InfoPath 2003 features and form-specific content (Figure 2).
Figure 2: This is InfoPath 2003 in Design mode.
From the task pane, select New from Data Source. The Data Source Setup Wizard walks you through the steps to connect to your chosen data source. You can choose XML Schema or XML data file, database, or Web service as the data source for your form.
By: Ellen Whitney
Ellen Whitney, Vice President
Ellen Whitney is Vice President of EPS Software Corporation, as well as a senior developer specializing in the design and implementation of object-oriented software systems. Ellen’s thorough knowledge of the development process has benefited many clients as well as having made her a lecturer and international author. She is also Managing Editor of CODE Magazine and has been architecting software since 1989. In her current role she works extensively with the Sales and Marketing Departments and is responsible for setting the overall goals and direction of the company.
InfoPath 2003, a new application in the Microsoft Office family, allows the developer to use a WYSIWYG interface to create custom forms easily. The user can then input data in the forms in a rich, dynamic, and familiar Office 2003 environment. The data is stored in XML and can be used by SQL Server, Access, BizTalk Server, Web services, or any other process that supports XML.