Will firms balk at Microsoft's program?

Businesses will get their first look at the company's new application for organizing and sharing data next week, but some analysts say the learning curve may be too steep.

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Microsoft next week will release the first widely available beta of InfoPath, a new application for organizing and sharing data that will be included in the next version of Office, but analysts say the learning curve will be steep.

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The Redmond, Wash.-based company is positioning the product, in part, as a tool to let data migrate from one application in Office to another through Extensible Markup Language (XML). With InfoPath, a sales manager could create a form to which team members could submit numerical data from Excel and notes from Word. The two applications would work harmoniously on the same page and allow for automatic updates.

It will be one of two new applications in Office 11. The other, OneNote, is like Word but lets users write notes anywhere on the screen.

But analysts raise concerns that many businesses will be shocked by the complexity of InfoPath, which functions differently than other Office applications.

"This is not a product an end user can use right out of the box," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver. "There is a lot of programming and infrastructure (that) enterprises will have to put in place before they can use it."

Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler agreed with that assessment. "It's not an end-user tool," he said.

In some ways, the complexity problem extends beyond InfoPath to other Office 2003 applications, as they all so heavily rely on XML for data exchange. But, judging from the software seen by CNET News.com, InfoPath makes more use of XML than any other Office 2003 program. In mid-February, Microsoft inadvertently posted the software, then code-named Office 11, on the Microsoft Developer Network Web site. The official launch announcement is scheduled for next week.

"The enterprise is going to have to sit down and figure out how they're going to use the data and (then) write some schemas," or XML dialects, Silver said. For companies that already use XML-based Web services, the transition could be somewhat easier.

InfoPath's complexity underlies Microsoft's attempt to make Office into something more than "a horizontal productivity program," Silver said. In fact, Microsoft is in the process of repositioning Office as a "platform," like Windows, for which developers can create applications, he added.

With Office 2003, Microsoft is rebranding the applications so that they are less separate programs and more part of the entire suite. Outlook 2003 is set to be called Office Outlook 2003, and the new version of Word would be Office Word 2003, under the new branding.

But, analysts say, this redefinition of Office as a platform with new capabilities is a stretch, considering how different and more complex InfoPath is compared with its suite siblings. In many ways, InfoPath doesn't fit all that well in the Office family. Still, from a marketing perspective, the approach makes sense, said Silver.

"Microsoft has a lot of brand equity in Office, and they're trying to expand what that is," Silver said.

Developing new software for people in the office is a major goal at Microsoft, which wants to double the amount of annual revenue pulled in by its Information Worker division, which oversees Office. In the most recent quarter, the division accounted for $2.4 billion of the company's $8.5 billion in revenue, and $1.88 billion of the $3.25 billion gross profit.

At one time, Office accounted for more than half of Microsoft's profits, but the product's importance has declined as Microsoft struggled to get existing customers to upgrade to new versions.

More than forms
Complexity aside, analysts see tremendous potential for InfoPath among enterprises looking to use XML as a way of wringing more use out of their data.

The purpose of InfoPath, and the new Office suite as a whole, is "to create documents that are intrinsically structured but (to hide) the complexity of that structure as much as possible," said Jupiter Research analyst David Schatsky.

"If you look at Office over the years, there have been a lot of half measures for gathering structured data," Schatsky said. "None of them have been robust enough a solution for enterprises, which would give up on, say, Word and develop their own solutions for gathering structured data from end users"--typically as Web-based forms.

Web-based forms and many other in-house data-collection tools typically require software on a server to interact with a client. Microsoft hopes to use InfoPath as a means of bringing much of the power back to the desktop, where many Office documents are generated and stored.

InfoPath "tends to elevate the value of data (that) end users create and...store on their desktops by making the structure more implicit and easier to use with other applications," Schatsky said.

Microsoft is also betting that InfoPath could emerge as a front-end to existing customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning applications, such as those from Siebel Systems or SAP. Forrester Research gave these types of applications a failing grade, because of employee resistance to many CRM and ERP front-end clients.

"Those real large companies have a large problem with employee productivity," Schadler said. "They load Siebel, and the employees hate it and go out of their way not to use it. We think InfoPath is an alternative client for services that might already be available in Siebel."

While enterprises might initially go through a difficult process deciding how best to use InfoPath and how to set up the proper policies and infrastructure, employees would be offered the familiarity of an Office product interface.

Schadler sees this as an enormous opportunity for Office sales.

"Microsoft would like nothing more than to make Office the front end to these other (back-end) applications," Schadler said.

Another potential use involves distributing commonly used administrative forms.

"It's significant for enterprise customers," said Paul DeGroot, an analyst with market researcher Directions of Microsoft. "Forms are a staple of many enterprises, and I could see InfoPath even encouraging them to convert a lot of their documentation--particularly common memos, such as HR requests, purchasing requests, common announcements and bulletins--into a forms front-end; the argument being that such data loses its randomness and becomes manageable, retrievable, and so on."

Still, while supporting XML as an industry standard, Microsoft is taking its own approach to creating forms, choosing not to support the XForms standard adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium.

"It's obviously a big divergence from XForms," Schadler said. "That's one area where they're out of sync with the standards bodies." Still, "it's not surprising Microsoft would not go with the industry standard version, because they would want InfoPath to have some stickiness to customers."

A Microsoft representative declined to comment on the company's position about XForms or InfoPath ahead of the Office 2003 Beta 2 launch.

Next week's official Office 2003 Beta 2 launch will give as many as a half-million testers and businesses their first real look at InfoPath. Microsoft distributed the product, then code-named XDocs, to a small number of testers during the Beta 1 process, which began in October.