Microsoft christens XDocs application ‘InfoPath’

Microsoft Corp. has 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 recent health care industry conference in San Diego, officials from the Health Level 7 standards group discussed how InfoPath could 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 that sends the information back out to medical records systems, where it updates those systems and makes the information available for use across the organization.

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.

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