Tuesday morning at the SharePoint conference people packed the room for the news on the updated Forms Strategy from Microsoft. Since the announcement that InfoPath 2013 would be the last release, the community has been waiting to see what would come next.

When the news broke about the end of InfoPath not many people were surprised, but many were left wondering what would come next and concerned about how to navigate forward without a clear direction. The session today by Sonya Koptyev, senior product marketing manager, Microsoft and Greg Lindhorst, principal program manager lead, Microsoft provided some answers and information on what's to come, what to do in the meantime and how to ensure that your needs are heard.

Change is Hard

Koptyev and Lindhorst opened with, “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress,” a quote from Charles Kettering which set the tone for the session.  Change is hard, but when it comes to our familiarity with forms and development of forms in SharePoint, change is necessary. InfoPath is a great tool for creating and developing forms, but it's a tool of the past and not necessarily one that can transition to meet the expectations of today’s users.

Users expect the world to be ready on demand and on any device at any time. These expectations drive businesses to look for quick and easy ways to deliver solutions to users and Microsoft needs to be able to deliver tools and techniques that can help meet this need. Microsoft recognizes this and is starting to look at things differently. Instead of grouping all types of forms in one tool, they are trying to understand what we need and how we are using them. We are moving from a “one size fits all” forms solution to one that branches out into various elements and approaches. This is change and for many organizations it will be a different way of doing things.

Microsoft is Listening

Microsoft is basing its new approach to forms on user feedback. Instead of working to enhance the “one size fits all” technology, it is allowing for the addition of a new set of tools and techniques. As of right now, most of these capabilities are still in development and it is expected that this will continue to expand into new areas based on industry trends and customer needs. For today, the three primary form types are:

Excel Surveys

These are currently available within Office 365 and provide a way to easily create a quick form to pull data from users. An example of this form can be found here on my personal blog. For my example I didn’t need special formatting or rules -- just something simple, quick and to the point. This feature isn’t currently available for on-premises instances of SharePoint but it is expected that it arrives with the new server release in 2015.

Customized List Forms

Customized list forms came next, specifically simple SharePoint lists to collect data from users. The goal of these form customizations is to provide a very easy, low entry point for customization. The new features displayed allowed for customization directly within the browser.

The idea is that any information worker would be able to easily make cosmetic changes to the form without having to leave the current context. The customization features simply exist within the browser. They are similar to the types of customizations you can make today within Access Apps, but they are applied to SharePoint lists and have no requirements of backend components.

Structured Data Forms

Structured data forms take things to the next level and pull together forms for display or for print. Think along the lines of a form that you want users to be able to print out and/or complete online. This was presented as an idea for the future and not a solution that currently exists. They are working with some other Office teams, specifically the Word team to help develop the best way to capture, present and build these structured forms. There needs to be a focus on the user experience as well as a plan to work with the data set from the completed forms. Microsoft made a commitment to provide a clear roadmap within the next year.

Apps

The final concept in the forms roadmap was the idea of building self-contained apps. Think of this as a collection if lists, libraries and items that are linked together through relationships. The solution for this scenario is provided through Access Services 2013. Moving forward there will be continued developments in this area to continue to enhance the features that are already available.

The Timeline

While there were no working solutions shared with us today, Microsoft offered a clear path forward with its proposed roadmap and expected timelines. Koptyev and Lindhorst made it very clear as it presented the roadmap that input from users and customers would help drive the priority of the new feature development. This effort to be transparent with what they were developing was emphasized multiple times, to allow users to impact the products along the way.

This is a departure from previous development cycles where the only time to provide input came after a new release shipped. The timeline was grouped into three windows -- 3-6 Months, 1 Year and Later. Within the next few months we should have the ability to modify form layouts, create cascading relationships and develop lookups between various lists. Within the next year we should be able to add business rules to our forms, hide and display sections, create mobile and touch friendly forms and integrate user profile data. Farther in the roadmap we should be able to work with e-signatures, enterprise data and make calls through web services.

This roadmap applies specifically to Office 365 and for those with an on premises instance of SharePoint the next set up updates will be made available when the new server releases in 2015.

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A Call to Action

During the session Koptyev and Lindhorst repeated that Microsoft wants to work with users to help understand what tools and features are the most important for their users to work better together. The call to provide feedback was not just an empty statement as several channels were provided to collect and organize feedback. If you have input on the types of features and functionality that should be included within InfoPath, create a new suggestion on http://officeforms.uservoice.com/.

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Within this site you will be able to see the suggestions from others as well as vote for the ideas that impact you the most. This platform allows for the development team to interact directly with the customers to better understand their needs and how the tools that are developed are used within their environments.  

Navigating the Path Forward

Today’s session was primarily focused on the path forward, but still provided information on the approach to dealing with forms as we wait for these new solutions. For now, we should use InfoPath as we wait for additional tools to be made available.  Microsoft continues to support InfoPath and will continue to through 2023. Solutions built today using InfoPath will continue to work through future releases. As new tools are made available we will be able to use InfoPath less and begin to build solutions using the newest features.

This aligns with the original blog post announcing the end of new releases for InfoPath. I wrote about my initial thoughts on this announcement and provided some insight into the approach of using InfoPath wisely. Today’s session confirmed my beliefs that in the immediate future InfoPath is still a valid approach to solving business solutions. And while we wait for new tools, we can add our voice to defining future requirements. Change is hard, but this change is one that I am personally looking forward to very much!