XML forms are key to Office 2003 development platform aspirations

With the launch of Office 2003 System today (21 October), Microsoft has shifted the focus of the software package from office...

With the launch of Office 2003 System today (21 October), Microsoft has shifted the focus of the software package from office productivity to development platform. Handling electronic forms is one of the new features that epitomises Microsoft's strategy.

Infopath is a program within the professional version of Microsoft Office 2003 for creating and handling electronic forms. A set of templates is provided to help IT departments develop data entry forms, which can be rolled out throughout the business.

Microsoft has suggested Infopath could be used to build appraisal forms, timecards, expense reports and weekly status reports. Data is collected using XML, which means data captured on the form can be accessed by business applications that can read this internet data standard.

Neil Laver, Office group marketing manager at Microsoft, said, "We are hoping Infopath will change the way people build front-ends for applications like SAP and Siebel."

Traditionally, users would have written the front-end or client software for business applications in a programming language such as Visual Basic. Alternatively, many enterprise systems offer a web-based user interface, where end-users work with the software via a web browser and HTML-based forms.

Infopath has a different approach. Laver said forms developed in Infopath have the look and feel of an Office application such as Word or Excel. They provide features such as text formatting, a spell checker, an undo button and local authentication, where data can be validated within the form before it is submitted.

Rival software supplier Adobe has been deploying electronic forms technology since the release of Acrobat 6 in February. Based on the popular PDF format, Adobe's approach is to provide electronic forms that look like paper-based forms.

Mark Wheeler, enterprise marketing manager at Adobe, said, "Our design criteria is to extend users' core systems to internal employees and beyond the firewall."

Wheeler said Adobe's approach made it possible to deploy PDF-based forms over the internet - something he said was not possible with Microsoft's Infopath. Adobe Acrobat is a free piece of software, widely deployed on the internet and available on Windows, Linux, Macintosh and Unix machines. In contrast, the Windows based-Microsoft product was designed mainly for internal use behind the firewall.

Wheeler said Acrobat (PDF) was not only a document display format, it also supported workflow and could be used to create interactive forms.

Adobe has developed server software designed to switch on the interactive features in a PDF document. This means end-users who want to fill in a PDF-based form only need the free Acrobat Reader software. No additional software (or licence) is required.

Like Microsoft, Adobe's technology can be used as the front-end to enterprise resource planning systems. In particular, SAP offers PDF-based access to its enterprise software. Users including Rolls Royce and Astra Zeneca are deploying PDF-based access to SAP.

Microsoft and Adobe have provided two approaches to creating and using XML-based electronic forms. But with few enterprise applications able to use the XML produced by these forms, true electronic form processing may be some years away.

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