Two interesting products have crept into the Microsoft Office product lineup. One puts a friendly face on XML files, while the other is designed as a Tablet PC organizational tool. Here's a close look at both products.
By Mike Gunderloy and Susan Harkins
Given the phenomenal success of Microsoft Office over the years, it’s not surprising that Microsoft is always adding new applications to the Office family. With Office 2003, there are two new additions: Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003 and Microsoft Office OneNote 2003. In this article, we’ll take a look at these new applications and give you a sense of where—or whether—they might fit into your own operations.
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Check out these other Office 2003 articles:
- "Making the decision to upgrade to Office 2003: Upgrading the Office core"
- "Outlook 2003 offers many new features, but it will cost you"
- "Boost collaboration with Office 2003's SharePoint Services"
- "FrontPage 2003 leaves the Office nest"
InfoPath: XML on the desktop
Microsoft calls InfoPath “the premier smart client for XML Web Services.” Another way to think of it is as a friendly face on top of XML files. Figure A shows an InfoPath form being filled out. As you can see, it’s very similar to a form developed in Access, Excel, or Visual Basic.
|The InfoPath form is very similar to a form developed in Access, Excel, or Visual Basic.|
An InfoPath form looks similar to other Office forms. Although the user need never see what goes on behind the scenes, filling out an InfoPath form creates an XML file. Here’s the start of the file that corresponds to Figure A:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
solutionVersion="18.104.22.168" productVersion="11.0.4920" ?>
The result is a perfectly valid and standard XML file. And that’s where the main strength of InfoPath lies: It is a product in which Microsoft has paid close attention to the relevant public standards. By providing a friendly front-end and a standards-compliant backend, Microsoft is positioning InfoPath as a universal client for products from many vendors.
Because it’s just a front-end on XML files, InfoPath forms can be used whether you’re connected to the network or not. This makes it an ideal rich client for users who travel frequently. They can take a corporate expense report or travel voucher form along on their laptop, and use InfoPath to fill it in. Then when they are connected, the saved XML can be used by other applications.
In fact, there’s a great way to get the information back to your network even without reconnecting: XML Web Services. It’s easy to tell InfoPath that it should use a Web Service to submit data. So in the travel example, the user might connect to an XML Web Service on the corporate server over the Internet and send the completed form directly to the Web Service. On the server, this information could then be redirected into CRM, accounting, and other applications.
It’s not quite rocket science
Even though InfoPath is targeted at end users, don’t expect end users to do their own setup. Despite a WYSIWYG environment and some helpful wizards, designing and tuning InfoPath forms is still a job for IT professionals (though some audacious power users will probably try their hand at form design). On the plus side, Microsoft hasn’t scrimped on the power here. InfoPath includes scripting and an object model, so the savvy IT pro can customize form behavior to a considerable extent. Everything is saved in standard XML formats, so that you can use your XML toolkit of choice to make modifications as well.
Of course, InfoPath is designed to work together with other parts of Office 2003. It can export data directly to Excel, and InfoPath forms can be stored on a SharePoint site for easy use by team members. You’ll also find InfoPath form sharing in Outlook 2003 and in Internet Explorer.
When you get beyond Office, sharing might become somewhat more work. InfoPath does emit standard XML—but do your other systems accept XML? If your company has already made a commitment to XML, they probably do. Otherwise, you need to plan on some substantial development and integration efforts to make InfoPath play well with the rest of your software.
OneNote: Road warrior’s dream
If InfoPath is for anyone who works with corporate information, Microsoft OneNote also has a very specific target audience: those who travel with a Tablet PC for their company. That’s because this integrated note-taking and organization application is at its best when you’ve got a stylus rather than a keyboard for input (although it can be used with just a keyboard and mouse if you don’t happen to have a Tablet PC). Figure B shows the OneNote interface.
|OneNote has a busy interface.|
OneNote can be a bit confusing at first, because there’s a lot going on in a limited space. The OneNote file is called a notebook. A notebook can have multiple sections (in Figure B you can see “General” and “Meetings”), which are delineated by tabs along the top of the working area. Within a section, you can have multiple pages, each of which is accessible through a tab on the right side of the working area. When you select a tab and a page, you can write, paste, draw, or use the pen anywhere in the working area. Later on, you can drag things around to rearrange them, convert ink to text, and otherwise neaten up your rough notes.
OneNote also offers many other features for note-takers. For example, it installs a “quick note” icon on the Windows Taskbar that you can use to open up a subset of the user interface when you just need to jot something down. Another intriguing feature is synchronized audio and written notes; you can record a meeting, take notes as it goes along, and later play back the audio with the written notes showing up when you reach the corresponding portion of the audio program.
Like any other application, OneNote is designed to share information. You can turn notes into Outlook tasks or e-mail, or publish them to a Web page. Or, you can take your OneNote notebook and turn it into a shared Workspace with SharePoint, using it as the basis for a team project.
Are you organized already?
Although OneNote, with its flexible organization, searchable ink and text, and flashy interface seems like an ideal way to organize all the detritus of your job, there is one specific factor you need to consider: Will it replace the system you already have? More precisely, is it worth the nuisance of reorganizing everything to get it into OneNote?
Here’s the issue: Most knowledge workers have already developed a strategy for keeping track of things. They use a variety of Excel worksheets, Access databases, third-party outliners, Outlook notes, and so on to keep track of the bits of information they need to do their jobs. And while OneNote might offer the ideal place to organize all this stuff, it doesn’t offer a really good way to import information. So if you do decide to flip over to OneNote, be prepared for an extended session of cut and paste to get started.
You also need to think about your hardware when deciding whether OneNote is worth it to you. With the Tablet PC and the pen, taking handwritten notes is quick and easy. If you’re at a desktop, and need to type your notes instead, perhaps a simple Word document would be just as useful as the OneNote notebook. You can set up your mouse to leave ink on the page, but for most of us, the eye-hand coordination involved isn’t worth the benefits.
The final verdict
For most organizations, the decision as to whether to buy InfoPath and OneNote will be independent of buying the rest of Office. InfoPath will be bundled into the Professional Enterprise Edition for volume-license customers, but will not be a part of any other suite. OneNote will not be in any of the suites. Both products will be available in retail or OEM packaging. So far, pricing hasn’t been announced for either one.
Assuming a reasonable price, it seems to us that the decisions depend on other factors in your company. If you’ve made a commitment to XML for interoperability, or need to exchange XML with trading partners, InfoPath should be an excellent investment. Just make sure you have a developer and system administrator resources available to integrate it into your business.
OneNote is a tougher call. If you’re investing in Tablet PCs, we find OneNote superior to the built-in note-taking software. But if you aren’t, think about whether your desktop and laptop PC users need another way to organize their lives. If so, this might be it, but if they already have everything under control, OneNote could turn out to be more shelfware.