by November 1, 2004 0 comments

Microsoft InfoPath 2003 comes across as a strange product and when you consider that the full package at a price tag of nearly 10,000 per seat, has to be deployed, be it for the developer or end user, you might even wonder why it exists. 

Simply put, InfoPath helps you create rich and dynamic Web page like front ends to work flows-forms and the like. It is quite easy to design a form in Infopath; the GUI is very rich and intuitive. The problem is that it is not an application-development environment in itself, and perhaps because of that, back end connectivity is rather limited and cumbersome to develop once you have started with the form and not the data source. Publishing options are to shared folders, Web servers or to SharePoint services. Database connectivity is limited to the Microsoft world, Access and SQL Server, and to

A typical scenario for its usage would be: your Project Manager needs a simple workflow form that multiple people have to fill up, and it needs to provide/lookup information from a database, and you have the details of the proper databases and fields.

In InfoPath, you open the Project Plan template and in the Data Source pane (View>Data Source), set up the bindings between the form-fields and the database fields. And in a few minutes you have a functional planning form. Once you publish it, you get a .xsn file at the target location that can now be accessed and used. InfoPath does not handle access control, you have to use features of the target to do this.

Designing and filling out forms in MS InfoPath 2003 is a cinch!

Now consider its limitations: only three types of databases can be connected to, JavaScript abilities are limited to data validation, it has minimalist event handling and there is a complete absence of the ability to send your data to some other source (such as an ASP.NET or PHP form processor). Out-of-the-box validation is limited to equality and blankness, everything else should be done through the JavaScript code. Developers will dearly miss the ability to insert regular expression validation (for validating e- mail addresses, for example) to their controls on InfoPath forms. And there is no reader. Every one who has to use the published document has to have the full InfoPath installed. 

InfoPath 2003 comes with around 25 form-templates in its default installation. More can be added and updated either using the built-in designer or through the Office Update website. These templates address a wide-variety of common needs, right from your basic resume to employee assessment and asset tracking. However, these templates do not feature the data submission part and this has to be added before use. So you have to add a submit button! The built-in Forms Designer is less complicated than any other form-design capable Microsoft product and you can set it up with a new form in a few clicks.

Components such as ‘Optional Section (repeating)’ when placed on forms enable the runtime-user to click on-screen options and add repeating rows of data (like in time-sheets) automatically. No coding needs to be done for this. InfoPath exposes its own DOM (Document Object Model), which can be used to perform pre-submit validations. However, similar or better results can be achieved using other products and technologies as well. 

The Bottom Line: Easy and intuitive on the form design front, InfoPath would be the executive’s quick solution to automation of his form-based tasks. Limitations of back end connectivity along with its limited functionality, extensibility and lack of a reader add up to a formidable list on the opposite side of
the balance. 

Sujay V. Sarma

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