Implement user-friendly, lightweight, mobilized front-ends for business systems. The technology should allow non-technical users to implement it for particular business needs, while also conforming to the user's workflow by supporting offline use.
Use solutions such as Adobe Intelligent Document Platform* or Microsoft InfoPath* forms to allow general users to create front ends. A growing number of large providers are developing mobilized solutions that allow rich, human-friendly documents to communicate with business back-ends using lightweight XML schemas. These solutions present the user with a document in PDF, DOC, or similar format, which contains the intelligence to send data from the user back to the publisher using Web services and other transports.
Thus, rather than requiring the publisher to glean information from a form, for example, and enter that data manually into a database, the document itself acts as a front-end for the database, in much the same way as a traditional Web form or rich-client interface. This modality builds on the concept, however, in that it natively and smoothly supports offline use, in the same manner as a conventional document. A user might download a form, fill it out over the course of several sessions, e-mail it to other members of a work group for input, and then finally submit it back to the publisher. Moreover, only the data entered by the users is communicated back to the publisher, rather than the entire form, which increases the solution’s efficiency.
The Adobe Intelligent Document Platform* provides one approach to bridging the gap between such word-processor-generated forms and the back-end systems that need to house the data those forms collect (back-end data may also be used in creating the form itself). In fact, this platform is not limited to word-processing documents, but may use intelligent documents based on a wide variety of sources, including common office software like the Microsoft Office* suite, graphics applications, and even CAD tools:
The form can be used offline, just as any other local PDF file. It includes a submit button that allows the data on the form to be communicated using XML Web services to the enterprise back-end, if a connection is available. If no connection is available when the user clicks the submit button, the system can queue the submission using asynchronous Web services or by attaching the PDF file to an e-mail message.
Microsoft InfoPath 2003* provides similar functionality. People who gather information in the field must often input that information into one or more business systems when they return to the office. This redundant data entry tends to be both inefficient and error-prone. Consider the case of a salesperson who calls on several clients over the course of a sales trip. Back at the office, the road-weary salesperson must enter data from the trip into a number of business systems: writing a weekly status report, updating a customer-relationship management (CRM) application, and completing an expense-reporting form, among others. Since these systems are not mobilized, our salesperson cannot complete the data input on the plane and therefore must spend most of the day after returning from the sales trip with these tedious, unproductive tasks.
By comparison, a mobilized solution that uses Microsoft InfoPath* 200 could remove the need for redundant data entry, also allowing the salesperson to perform all data entry tasks during the sales trip itself. The salesperson is more productive with less risk for errors that arise from repetitive data entry.
InfoPath provides a WYSIWYG design environment to create forms using text boxes, drop-down lists, and other familiar controls. This characteristic gives relatively non-technical managers and others control over the data-gathering process, while also reducing the ongoing costs of maintaining business processes, since it is not necessary to involve the IT department in day-to-day changes to data-gathering forms. The form design GUI allows users to configure the behavior of controls, and a script editor supports more complex functionality. InfoPath handles information using XML, which allows a single form to communicate with any number of enterprise information systems, such as a CRM application, an order-management system, inventory control, expense reporting, and so on, through integration with an application server such as Microsoft BizTalk Server* 2002.