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InfoPath Forms Services 2010 (Part 1): The InfoPath Clients

There are a number of substantial improvements introduced within SharePoint 2010’s “InfoPath Forms Services” feature set. Now consolidated under the “Composites” pillar of SharePoint, Forms Services make it easier than ever to build and deploy rich forms to your clients.
 
In the coming weeks, I’m going to outline some of the more interesting changes within Forms Services. Today, I’ll outline…
 
The InfoPath Clients
 
As with many Microsoft products, the third release of InfoPath represents a major milestone for the underutilized software. Whereas InfoPath 2003 and InfoPath 2007 showed quirky promise, InfoPath 2010 feels to me like a mature product ready for public consumption.

One major improvement is that the software has been reorganized into distinct programs:

  • InfoPath Designer 2010: For building and customizing InfoPath Form Templates (.XSN files).
  • InfoPath Filler 2010: For end-users to complete electronic forms (.XML files).

Previous versions combined both usages into one clunky program that was neither suited for form designers nor end users. That was a headache for IT staff who may have wanted to allow users to complete forms, but not design them. Thankfully, that’s history.
There are three things you should know about the clients:

  1. InfoPath Filler 2010 was previously known as “InfoPath Editor 2010”, but has been renamed as of build 14.0.4302.1000). Great decision.
  2. As of that build, both applications use the same file icon. This can get really confusing when working with both simultaneously. I hope they’re modified for the Release Candidate…
  3. It’s not yet clear which programs will be included with the various Office 2010 SKUs. I’m hoping that “InfoPath Filler 2010” will be available as a free download, a la SharePoint Designer. I expect Microsoft would want the widest pool of users able to fill out the forms for free, while editing would be a premium (similar to Adobe’s Reader model).

Interface
The InfoPath clients have been updated to match the fluent “Ribbon” interface found throughout the rest of Office. They feature the useful “Backpane” screen and also boast better formatting compatibility when copying content from Word.
Throughout the designer, it’s easier to control the form’s layout. Pre-set themes can be applied via a convenient drop-down.
One of the most significant changes I noticed is the combination of Rules and Conditional Formatting. “Conditional Formatting” now exists only as a type of rule. This is easy to account for when editing, but could be a pain point if converting from a previous file format via XSLT.
New Controls
Several controls have been cleaned up in InfoPath 2010, but there are only three new ones I’ve seen:

  • Picture buttons: For creating prettier “Submit”, “Reset”, etc. interfaces.
  • BDC Entity picker: This is a fantastic addition to the toolset. It allows you to query and select items from within SharePoint 2010’s new “Data Catalog” entity framework.
  • People and Group selectors: A long-awaited ability to natively search and select users / groups via SharePoint web services. This will save tons of code.

New Functions
There are a handful of new functions available in XSL / XPath statements. Particularly useful are SharePoint-specific functions that return references based on the current context:

  • SharePointListURL()
  • SharePointSiteURL()
  • SharePointServerRootURL()

Publishing and Sharing
One of my favorite improvements afforded by InfoPath 2010 is the streamlined publishing process. In earlier versions, it took several steps to publish an InfoPath form. Worse, you had to repeat the process whenever you made a tiny change. Now, InfoPath remembers publishing settings of the current form and allows you to re-publish with one click.
There are also new publishing options. In addition to submitting to a SharePoint or Forms Services server, you can now submit to a generic HTTP web server or elect to submit to the “Host Environment”. That behavior depends on the current context, such as allowing you to submit a form to the page hosting it within a web part.
But we’ll cover that in more detail later. In the future, I’ll delve into the new web part support, browser interoperability, and configuration with “Service Applications”.

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