Mobility Blog

InfoPath Forms Filling: Weigh the Options

mm

Written by 

Ms. Neagu is a noted expert on data applications and XML technologies. Adriana was co-inventor of Microsoft Office InfoPath, and co-holds 4 InfoPath patents.

 

In this post, we consider the InfoPath Filler and examine alternative ways to fill InfoPath forms.

InfoPath form filler: The orphan application

Microsoft InfoPath installs as two different apps on a PC: InfoPath Designer for creating form templates, and InfoPath Filler for completing and submitting forms (or more precisely, for interacting with data using an InfoPath form template).

InfoPath Filler has never been made available separately, so for anyone to fill out forms the full InfoPath product must be purchased and installed on their PC. This has been a significant hindrance to the widespread adoption of the Designer-Filler model from the beginning — compared, say, to the Adobe model of selling their Acrobat designer and giving away the reader for free.

The hurdle is even higher now that InfoPath 2013 is no longer offered (update: InfoPath is now available for download) as a standalone product so that a full high-end Office installation is required to fill out forms.

There are two alternatives for using InfoPath Designer form templates without InfoPath Filler: browser forms and Formotus forms. These are not mutually exclusive options — some companies use both. Choosing the right solution for a particular situation depends on the nature of the forms, the type of workforce using them, and the kinds of resources you have available in your organization.

Option 1: InfoPath forms in a browser

Starting with InfoPath 2007 it became possible to publish forms for use in a browser, and in InfoPath 2010 the browser forms became more robust. Hosting such browser-based forms requires a high-end Enterprise version of SharePoint, however, and the IT savvy to go with it.

InfoPath Forms Services is a required SharePoint component which is currently offered in Office 365 Enterprise versions E3 and above (or in SharePoint Online Plan 2).

Office 365 and InfoPath

If your organization already has an Enterprise version of SharePoint that supports InfoPath Forms Services, that’s one significant hurdle already passed. If not, then there’s a reason to think twice about a browser-based solution.

When to choose a browser-based InfoPath form solution

Browser forms might be a great choice if this describes your circumstances:

  • Your organization has SharePoint expertise and already has or intends to acquire Enterprise level SharePoint that includes InfoPath Forms Services.
  • Your forms deal with tabular data like strings and numbers, not rich data like signatures and pictures.
  • Your workforce is office-centric and almost always has connectivity.
  • Filling your forms on tablets would be an efficient convenience, especially when workers are away from the office, but not a mission critical requirement. If a connection is unavailable and a form can’t be filled at a particular time, this will not cause significant problems.

When browser-based forms may not be the right choice

If any of the following describe your scenario, browser-enabled InfoPath forms may not be the right solution, especially if your organization would need to acquire or upgrade SharePoint just to gain access to InfoPath Forms Services:

  • If you have a field workforce that drives to remote locations to do their work, browser-based forms are not ideal because they require a constant and dependable connection to the server that may not always be available at the worksite.
  • If your requirements for forms include rich data such as signatures, photos, diagrams, and GPS locations, InfoPath browser forms do not provide that functionality.
  • If your workers need to be able to email forms to each other or collaborate on forms in a cloud location, InfoPath browser forms offer limited options.

Option 2: InfoPath forms in a rich native app

These are not mutually exclusive options — some companies use both. Formotus offers a cloud-based service for InfoPath-compatible forms on mobile devices. Our mobile client acts as an InfoPath Filler app that allows forms and their dynamic business logic to be used offline. Our client app is currently available in the stores for iOS and Android devices, with Windows on the way.

The video below demonstrates how to use Formotus to open an InfoPath form instance directly from SharePoint in our client app.

Beyond providing a mobile form filler app, Formotus extends the capabilities of InfoPath forms with the Formotus InfoPath custom controls that integrate with mobile hardware to capture camera photos, touchscreen ink, GPS locations and more.

Compare the Options

The following chart lays out the main feature differences between browser-based and Formotus-based InfoPath forms.

InfoPath Filler Alternatives

Browser Forms

Formotus Forms

What works offline?

Open a form to fill

No

Yes

Run complex rules

No

Yes

Save drafts locally

No

Yes

Submit forms to queue

No

Yes

What can forms capture?

Ink signatures

No

Yes

Camera photos

No

Yes

GPS locations

No

Yes

Device info

No

Yes

How can you collaborate?

Forms on SharePoint

Yes

Yes

SharePoint workflows

Yes

Yes

Formotus workflows

No

Yes

Email forms

Yes

Yes

Forms on Box, etc.

No

Yes

If your workers are always online and don’t need to capture rich data such as photos and signatures, then either solution may work and you should investigate the collaboration options more closely.

Collaborating by email is possible with both solutions, but there are differences. Emailing from browser forms is server-based and can be somewhat complex to set up. Formotus forms are emailed directly from the user’s device and can be opened as an email attachment and edited on another device.

Both solutions work with SharePoint workflows, lists, and libraries. The forms server solution is limited to browser-enabled forms, however, while the Formotus client works with Filler forms as well. With Formotus you can either use a 3rd party product such as Colligo Briefcase or Harmon.ie to navigate SharePoint, or you can use the Formotus workflow feature to open InfoPath forms directly from within the Formotus app, as shown in the video above.