Microsoft recently announced the discontinuation of InfoPath, its software application for designing and using electronic forms. In this discussion, K2 CEO Adriaan van Wyk considers the history of InfoPath and how market advances driven by K2 and other innovators may have hastened its demise.
Q: What do you make of Microsoft’s decision to retire InfoPath?
A: It is not a surprise, honestly. Microsoft had a good vision that made people hungry for the idea that forms don’t have to exist on paper and that they can move around electronically; but it wasn’t good enough. InfoPath enables users to take a static form and make it digital. But the form is still static, with static information that looks the same way as when it was designed. InfoPath’s demise involves the fact that it can’t keep up with the more dynamic and complex demands that people have, and those demands grew from the realization that more is possible.
Q: So, InfoPath got people thinking how you don’t have to be stuck with paper forms, but the appetite that grew from that realization outpaced what InfoPath could actually deliver?
A: That’s right. InfoPath relied on an XML data definition with a form layout that made it very difficult to make things dynamic and render additional information once the form was created. It was difficult to put it on the web and it was almost impossible to put it onto mobile platforms because of the technology and how it was architected. A lot of InfoPath users had gotten to the point where they said, “I want to be able to do more, and it doesn’t allow that. So I’m just not going to use it.”
Q: They probably couldn’t have made that choice if companies like K2 hadn’t already created new options. That suggests you realized early on that InfoPath had its limits and you didn’t waste much time finding a better approach and making it available to customers.
A: Well, keep in mind that K2’s SmartForms technology had already skyrocketed when InfoPath was still in existence. I honestly don’t think we would have been able to achieve this if we had been thinking as simply as responding to a need beyond InfoPath. We sort of have an independent back story that evolved concurrently even as InfoPath was being widely used.
Q: What does that back story look like?
A: It’s one that involves stepping back and thinking about our reasons for using and sharing information to begin with. Even if we remove all technology from the table and take it away completely, it’s still about information. Our world at K2 focuses on making it easy for people to have access to information, run their businesses better and become much more agile in their organizations. It’s this conceptual thinking around the needs and uses for information that drives development of the technology, and that’s a very different mindset from the InfoPath approach of converting static paper forms into static digital ones.
We said to ourselves, “People need access to information in certain contexts based on their job or their role in the organization. That means we should make those forms really powerful in ways that maximize the relevance of the information people are seeing and when they’re seeing it. We need to enable interaction, so we’ll have things like visual graphs that update in real time when you or someone else adds information. And people are very mobile, so we need to have these things happen regardless of whether you’re on your desktop or tablet or phone.” You see how the solution evolves in a very natural way from our understanding of how we need the information to be used. There’s this overall need to do everything in a way that people don’t have to go to developers for help changing the forms on the XML or code level.
Q: That last point seems important, given how much we hear about democratizing access to data beyond the IT department and into the hands of business users.
A: Absolutely. You can’t really be agile or dynamic with information if there are technological hurdles that slow things down by making you go to IT for everything. So it really is about taking the concept of a form and giving it life in ways that are dynamic, interesting and interactive. In doing that, you give a form the ability to change itself – almost magically – as it moves throughout the organization; that’s something that InfoPath was never designed to do. K2 smartforms had much more of that magical vision involved. And when you see that in practice, it just changes things completely.