Microsoft previews InfoPath update

Update inlcudes fixes, new features

Microsoft Corp. is giving users a chance to test enhancements to its InfoPath XML forms manager. Microsoft plans to deliver those enhancements as part of Service Pack 1 (SP1) for its Office 2003 products in late June.

Called InfoPath 2003 Service Pack 1 Preview, the update not only bundles software fixes, but also adds a host of new features. That is why Microsoft is offering a beta version, said Bobby Moore, product manager for InfoPath at Microsoft. With the preview, released on Monday, both users and software makers can prepare for the new functionality, he said.

InfoPath is Microsoft's new XML (Extensible Markup Language) forms manager. It joined the Office family last October part of the Office 2003 release. SP1 updates to InfoPath fall into four main areas: security, reliability, user experience and programming environment, Moore said.

On the security side, Microsoft has improved support for digital signatures, adding the ability to sign different parts of the form as well as cosigning, among other features. Reliability is improved by expanding automatic and offline document-saving support, enhancing filtering to quickly find relevant content and by fixing bugs. The user experience should improve through additional handwriting recognition support for Tablet PCs and the ability work on XML forms sent via e-mail, instead of having to retrieve them from a server, Microsoft said.

But perhaps the most important element to driving adoption of InfoPath are improvements and additions in the InfoPath programming environment. Developers using Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net can now create InfoPath applications using managed code. Previously InfoPath developers were limited to using scripting.

Additionally, the update adds tools for working with ActiveX controls and complex XML schemas as well as layout controls for working with printed forms and promises easier integration into existing business process and workflows, Microsoft said.

LLI Technologies Inc., an engineering and construction firm in Pittsburgh, is currently upgrading its internal Web-based business opportunities management applications. The company recently reviewed the current InfoPath product, but decided not to use it, said Dave Burke, a senior software developer at LLI.

"The company president discovered InfoPath as part of our recent Office 2003 upgrade, felt it had potential, and asked me to determine if it could add any efficiencies to our operations," Burke said.

He took a week to evaluate InfoPath and recommended against using the software because it does not have a rich user interface and the architecture from a .Net developer viewpoint is too limited, among other reasons, Burke said. However, although not all the SP1 updates are useful to LLI, Burke may take another look at InfoPath.

"Richer page layout controls for printing sounds great, but since we try to stay digital at LLI, better printing support isn't a big draw. Managed code support, on the other hand, is something that will definitely keep me tuned in and open to giving InfoPath another look," he said.

The InfoPath 2003 Service Pack 1 Preview is a fully functional copy of InfoPath that is set to expire on July 31. It is available for free download in U.S. English only from Microsoft's Web site at:

InfoPath 2003 is available as part of Microsoft Office Professional 2003 Enterprise Edition and stand-alone versions available through Microsoft's volume licensing channels as well as at retail outlets for an estimated price of $199.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.