Microsoft christens XDocs application ‘InfoPath’

Microsoft Corp. on Monday announced the official name for the next member of its Office family, formerly code named XDocs, and said a standards body for the health care industry is advocating use of the application as a way to help streamline medical records systems.

Now officially called InfoPath, the application aims to make it easy for end users to edit forms using XML (Extensible Markup Language), which provides a standard way of presenting and delivering data. The forms can be used to extract and send business data to and from business applications running on back-end systems, and can help cut down on paperwork and reduce errors associated with manual data entry, according to Microsoft.

At a healthcare industry conference in San Diego Monday, officials from the Health Level 7 standards group will discuss how InfoPath can be used with other technologies as part of a document management system for their industry, according to Bobby Moore, a product manager for InfoPath at Microsoft.

An InfoPath form tailored to the needs of a doctor might include fields with a patient’s name, address and medical history, he said. When the doctor writes the patient’s name in the form, other fields can be populated automatically using information pulled from back-end systems and delivered to the application in XML, Moore said. The idea is to cut down on the time it takes to fill out such forms and reduce the likelihood of error when information is entered manually.

The doctor can save the form in the XML format automatically, and click a button sends the information back out to medical records systems, where it updates those systems and makes the information available for use across the organization.

Different vertical markets, such as health care, manufacturing and finance, have developed versions of XML, known as XML “schema,” that are specific to their industries. At Monday’s conference, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society’s 2003 Conference and Exhibition, officials from Health Level 7 will show how InfoPath can be used with the Clinical Document Architecture (CDA), an XML standard used by their industry, Moore said.

“The reason we’re so high on this is because it’s a real world example of how to leverage an industry-standard XML with InfoPath,” he said.

Officials from Health Level 7 weren’t available late Friday to discuss the way they think CDA and InfoPath can work together.

One analyst said InfoPath provides a powerful interface for designing forms that can be manipulated by end users, drawing on some of the familiarity of Microsoft’s Office applications. But the software maker has its work cut out in order to make InfoPath successful, said Ted Schadler, principal software analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass.

For starters, he said, organizations must be persuaded to invest in the technology by having their developers design the various forms for their business.

“In order for this to have any value someone has to link it into a business application, so they’ve got a big delivery challenge. They’ve got to convince developers to build front ends, convince their partners to take on the challenge,” he said.

The technology also depends to a large degree on upgrading back-end systems to support the exchange of XML data. Some ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) systems are available that support XML, Moore noted, although implementation of those products by customers has occurred only gradually.

Microsoft has said that InfoPath will debut mid-year. It will be sold as a standalone product in Microsoft’s family of Office applications, Moore said, although Microsoft hasn’t decided yet whether InfoPath will also be offered as part of its Office suite of applications, alongside programs like Word and Excel, he added. The company also isn’t ready yet to discuss pricing for InfoPath.

Moore said InfoPath has several features that should make it attractive to businesses. Among them, users will be able to add additional fields to forms at they are needed. For example, a tax form might display fields for information about four family members. If a person filling out the form has more than four family members they’ll be able to click on a button to repeat the fields.

“The developer can designate sections that can be repeated or optional. Then the end user says, ‘OK, I want to grow this form by adding these sections,’ ” and clicks on a button to do that, he said.

More ambitiously, developers could develop forms that can extract information made available by other businesses in the form of Web services. For example, a doctor could query an application from an insurance company to see whether a patient is covered for use of a particular drug, Moore said.

Businesses don’t need to use InfoPath in conjunction with Microsoft’s BizTalk Server, Moore said, although “we do see that they work very well together. The payload is (from) XML and BizTalk Server,” he said.

Also Monday, Microsoft said that Amicore Inc., a company founded two years ago by Microsoft, IBM Corp. and Pfizer Inc., plans to include InfoPath in its information management system due out in the third quarter of the year. The company makes applications for independent physicians who work in groups of up to 15, said Reese Gomez, Amacore’s vice-president for marketing and product development.

The company intends to license the technology behind InfoPath for use in its applications, he said.

“At the core of our products is a workflow application which automates workflows in the (medical) practice. As a part of that we need a way to capture and distribute information easily and effectively. (InfoPath) will make it easier for us to customize the way a practice would like to see the information displayed,” he said.