[Cross-posted from blog.jonralton.net]

A lot of hype was created around the announcement by the Microsoft Office team of InfoPath’s end-of-life announcement (blog post) by Microsoft back in January, accentuated by the ‘InfoPath Funeral’ held at the SharePoint Conference in March. For those following InfoPath’s progress over the past few years, or lack thereof, this was not shocking news. We didn’t see any new features in the latest release of the InfoPath 2013 client nor InfoPath Forms Services for SharePoint 2013, and we watched the product team at Microsoft disband. What are we to do? Where do we go from here?

Grieving the Loss

InfoPath was conceived over 10 years ago, introduced as part of Office 2003. Over three subsequent releases and incremental server-side integration with SharePoint via InfoPath Forms Services, we can rightly feel some emptiness and bewilderment at what to do. While users are unlikely going through the full-blown five stages of grief, we do indeed need to recognize that we’ve begun a journey of moving on from our faithful XML-jockeying forms application.

Not Quite Dead Yet

Considering we were met with complete disappointment during SPC12 having been offered not a single session on InfoPath, I will concede the fun of a funeral procession through the exhibit hall this year at SPC14. Attendees carried a ‘coffin’ for InfoPath and chanted “Bring out your dead!” akin to the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I actually think this movie reference is even more appropriate than some thought–just like the old man who wasn’t quite dead yet (video), I’d like to remind ourselves that InfoPath is still alive and well.

Don’t Panic

Microsoft’s announcement of the discontinuation of InfoPath is not an obituary. The product is still a healthy breathing component of the SharePoint ecosystem, and by the time the burial occurs, today’s elementary school students will be making their way through college. Let’s take a deep breath… OK? Life as we know it will continue for the near future. Our forms didn’t all of a sudden stop working. Someone didn’t cut the cord. Just as all Office products do, InfoPath will enjoy its full 10 years of support according to the Microsoft Support Lifecycle Policy. The plug won’t be pulled until April 11, 2023 (notice). As revealed to us at SPC14, SharePoint’s next on-premise release in 2015 will include continued support for InfoPath Forms Services, and SharePoint Online will maintain similar support until further notice.

Let’s Be Prudent

Just because those kids aren’t going to land in college for 10 years, we’ll still start saving up now for those hefty bills. You wouldn’t put off formulating a plan for their future success now, and similarly we of course shouldn’t just kick back and ignore the news we’ve been given. So what shape should our actions take over the next year? I think it depends on where your organization is in its development lifecycle around business process management and the forms that facilitate those processes.

Reviewing What We Know

As emphasized throughout SPC14, and specifically in the session SPC348 – Update on InfoPath and SharePoint Forms, Microsoft is clearly pushing us to rally around what they’re referring to as Contextual Process Apps. The idea is that our business processes should be connected just as we, the information workers, are. We need to make available the hooks into these processes wherever our users choose to be and however they choose to connect. What makes up this concept?

  1. Awareness
    Users need to be aware of relevant data where and when it is relevant to them without having to sift through too much noise.
  2. Capture and Output
    Getting data into our desired formats should be easy, thus putting it in motion through the process as soon as possible.
  3. Analysis
    Value should be created from all of our process data, thus getting users to interact with it. We should be able to utilize telemetry from the process to better understand what users are doing and continuously monitor and improve the process.
  4. Collaboration
    At this point we are very used to our collaborative tools to create content. This paradigm should continue while we’re within a process.
  5. Business Process Management
    A balance must be struck between effectively managing the steps of an activity while maintaining versatility and flexibility for the user.

How will Contextual Process Apps manifest themselves in the Office Forms product roadmap? For the moment… Microsoft has outlined four options that are available to examine now and some that are still being formulated:

20140404_office-forms-product-roadmap

Source: SPC348 – Update on InfoPath and SharePoint Forms (Deck)

  1. Excel Surveys
  2. List Forms (FoSL – Forms on SharePoint Lists)
  3. Structured Document
  4. App Forms

Two of these forms creation options for SharePoint 2013 have been around for a while. Also, keep in mind that further choices include…

  • HTML5/JavaScript Forms
  • ASPX Forms
  • Visual Studio

Much discussion has already ensued around the facets of the roadmap; there are advantages to each as well as recognizable absences of feature sets that will need to be addressed as the formulation of the Office Forms strategy progresses.

We were also had our attention directed to some alternative options to consider for an organization’s business process management needs, namely those of Microsoft partners providing products and services in this space:

20140404_sharepoint-forms-partners

Source: SPC348 – Update on InfoPath and SharePoint Forms (Deck)

These four are by far not the only players in this arena; they just happened to be present at SPC14. For example, during Q&A for the session, an attendee brought up Forms 7, a InfoPath alternative for SharePoint forms made available as a CodePlex solution.

Maintaining Existing Forms – My Advice

  • Should you take down your existing InfoPath forms?
    No. Nothing will break; these will continue to function.
  • Should you abandon any further updates to your InfoPath forms?
    No. You and your organization have already invested hours and resources in standing up these forms. The incremental evolution of updates to the interface, data, or workflow behind the forms will continue to provide value to your users. You already have overall InfoPath expertise as well as direct experience with these particular forms. There is no reason to abandon all of that; continue to build on that foundation you’ve invested so much in already.
  • Should you attempt to convert your existing InfoPath forms and processes?
    In my opinion, no, not yet. Wait until there is further clarity and direction out of the process underway by Microsoft’s Office Forms initiative unless you are making a near-term strategic decision to abandon whatever pure SharePoint-based forms technologies in the future for a partner/proprietary technology. Keep in mind–even the partners don’t know yet what will be made available as the roadmap proceeds. Down the road, decisions Microsoft makes in this space may impact the way you feel about your decision to go with a proprietary toolset. Don’t make the jump out of panic and uncertainty. Make it because of a compelling reason to leverage what a partner is able to offer you that InfoPath and current Contextual Process Apps cannot. Choosing to go with a partner at this point doesn’t completely insulate your organization from the changes that are coming. The road isn’t paved yet, and all of the on-ramps haven’t even been mapped out yet.

Developing New Forms – My Advice

  • Should you start using what’s available now?
    Yes! By all means… Start using Excel Surveys and App Forms, if they are appropriate to your information capture and user experience needs. These two options, of course, will not be sufficient for all situations
  • Should you just wait to implement new forms and processes?
    In my opinion, it is not going to be completely wasted effort to develop new forms and processes involving InfoPath. Unless you’re going to embark on a severely expensive effort over multiple fiscal quarters developing highly specific tweaks and hacks to bend InfoPath into a strategic mission-critical business process, I don’t see any problem solving your next business process problem with InfoPath. And besides my arguments around taming the hype and relying on sound supported functionality that isn’t disappearing, here’s why… The time and effort you and your organization expend on mapping the business process, discovering and validating requirements, considering and refining usability concerns, and all the activities around a basic BPM forms project–this will all need to be done regardless of the technology that is used for construction, and this work will be reusable when it comes time to consider conversion down the road. Weigh these advances in process improvement against waiting to make any changes to your workflows; the costs in lost productivity of paper-based processes; the frustration and low user sentiment resulting from ill-conceived ad-hoc solutions; the risk in relying on unsupported antiquated software crawling along as a critically weak link in a Tier 1 system. These are all challenges us IT professionals continually encounter and work towards overcoming with SharePoint-based solutions. This is not the time to stick our heads in the sand and wait it out. Go forth with your business analysts and do your valuable work! An upcoming technical hurdle shouldn’t derail all progress on solving business problems with today’s technology at hand.

Unprecedented Solicitation

This is indeed the start of a journey. We were not presented with a fully baked replacement for InfoPath, and this may rightly be an incredible disappointment for some of us. However, we have been presented with a completely unprecedented opportunity by Microsoft. They want us to tell them what we want. It sound so simple and logical, but this is new for us. While in many other areas we get pokes and prods to think in a certain way (blog post) and adopt what’s put on the table, we’ve instead been given a menu with featured entrees being concocted by executive chefs… with plenty of room on the menu to suggest our own selections. Go ahead, taste what’s been plated, and send your honest compliments and critical assessments back to the kitchen. The time to speak up is now, and myself along with the Office Forms team at Microsoft are all hoping you will via the Microsoft Office Forms vNext User Voice. Decisions are made by those who show up, people.

In Conclusion

InfoPath and InfoPath Forms Services are still viable and quite powerful components of a living, breathing, time-tested, and fully supported BPM toolset. Don’t give in to the hype around InfoPath’s demise. Instead, embrace the dynamic nature of this interim period and take stock of what you’re doing with these tools. Examine what’s been presented by Microsoft for review, try them out, and by all means participate in the discussion around what you and your organization would like to see from the next offering of Office Forms. Don’t go into mourning. Continue utilizing our tried and true InfoPath and seize the moment to help shape truly great successor applications!