I think InfoPath really has a brilliant future. I can easily see it as the universal forms engine that should replace Access, Excel, Word and custom applications on a wide array of scenarios inside and outside organizations. It has the potential to fill most of the void left behind by Visual Basic when it stoped being a real RAD tool. It is the ideal weapon for tool-maxers as Sabot said.
The problem is, as you stated, that once you have all your forms in InfoPath, you realize that they don’t scale to a wide audience because there is no free runtime.
Microsoft thinks that it is enough to foster InfoPath as a solution for the intranet and tell you to write ASP.NET pages for everything else. I also think this is a mistake. Well, maybe it will still make sense for some time from a revenue stand point, but I think not for long.
If I were responsible for InfoPath at Microsoft I would be asking myself these questions:
1. What proportion of Office System 2003 sales is really being driven by InfoPath? Can we see a trend?
2. To what point is the lack of a freely distributable runtime jeopardizing the attractiveness of InfoPath?
3. What are the reasons not to adopt a royalty free distribution model a la Access Runtime for Visual Studio Tools for Office owners?
On the implementation side, I agree a client runtime would not hurt for disconnected or seldom connected scenarios. But for many others that would just add another piece of code to deploy. I believe Microsoft should better build something like a server runtime capable of loading InfoPath forms as ASP.NET pages. Of course, for whatever rich functionality that cannot be mimicked by standard HTML, such server runtime should degrade as gracefully as possible.
Regarding Jon Udell's article, I think Microsoft could be stuck in a trap. They actually don’t see market demand for this. Demand does not exist because customers that would otherwise adopt InfoPath don’t do it precisely because such runtimes do not exist.
We have many times heard that since InfoPath builds on XML standards and scripts it would be “reasonably easy” to create such a runtime. The problem is whenever we hear that, we know it means Microsoft is not committing to build it.
UPDATED Sunday, May 9, 2004:
I have just read a comment by "CD". Thank you for proving me wrong! So InfoView is what I thought didn't exist:
Welcome to the online demo of InfoView. InfoView is a web form creation engine that converts Microsoft InfoPath forms to web forms delivered in ASP.NET. See how it works by using the 3 demonstrations below.