Archive for January, 2015

Content controls for business data connectivity

January 20th, 2015 by Jason

Sometimes, Word is a natural way for people to interact with back end applications (eg SAP).

This is particularly so when:

  • business data will be output to a Word document,
  • the user is more familiar with Word than the other system,
  • certain data updates may be required (and are permitted)

So maybe there are 4 high level categories:

  • apps which support commercial transactions (a recipient will receive a Word document), eg
    • employment onboarding (letter of employment)
    • invoicing
  • apps with a reporting component:  is the report format a natural interface if it was made bi-directional?
  • workflow/BPM systems which present documents (work orders, proposals, approvals etc)
  • policy/procedures in regulated industries, where a worker must follow a series of steps.  Can present that in a docx; the worker can tick the steps off as they do them
    • related training scenarios?

Microsoft had an emphasis on what they then called “Office Business Applications” back around the Office 2007 launch.  Fast forward to today, and “business connectivity services” are part of SharePoint.

But you can achieve the same sort of thing without SharePoint, using docx4j and data bound content controls.

Once you have your back end data in an XML format (and there are many tools/techniques to help with this), you can use content controls to bind what the user sees in Word to elements in that XML.

The beauty of it is that the binding is bi-directional, so if the user edits the document, the XML is updated (ie it stays in synch).

After the user has made their edit, you can update the back end application.  Typically, you’d do this after they saved & closed the document (ie outside Word, using docx4j), but you could also do it from within Word (a less good approach, but still, an option).

What if there is some data which the user shouldn’t be able to edit?  You simply lock the content control to prevent editing.

To quickly try out this approach, put together some sample XML, then upload it as explained here, to get a docx you can experiment with.

We’d loved to hear about how you might use this approach?

I have my XML, now what?

January 20th, 2015 by Jason

A barrier to using  content control data binding has been getting a feel for what the solution might look like.  You have your XML data, but what do you do next?

The audience for this post is broader than docx4j users; its for anyone wanting to easily set up a template docx using XML data binding, just to get a feel for what it is like from an authoring/Word perspective.

How do you add content controls to your Word document, and map them to the XML data?

For docx4j purposes, you use an OpenDoPE Word AddIn (of which there are two you can try).

Alternatively, Word 2013 introduced the XML mapping task pane (and some additional file format features) .  The docx linked in my previous blog post highlighted some usability issues with the XML mapping pane.

This post presents a “fast start” way you can try.  Simply upload your XML file here, and it will give you back a docx, with content controls mapped to that sample XML.

To take the following XML for an invoice as an example:

You’d get back the following Word 2013 docx (note that Word 2010 silently strips the repeats without warning):

In “design mode”, it looks like:

Whether you’re in design mode or not, you can edit the content of a content control, then to satisfy yourself that things are working correctly, save the docx, then unzip it and see your altered data in /customxml/item1.xml

This idea is that once you have the basic docx, you can quickly/easily edit it in Word to make it prettier:

The tool recognises and uses the following content control types:

  • repeats: automatically detect repeats and set up suitable content control structures (we use a table if there’d be more than one column) fully populated with the XML data
    • note that these are Word 2013 repeatingItem structures, not OpenDoPE repeats.  (We recommend you use OpenDoPE repeats, but the tool creates Word 2013 repeatingItems, so you can see what Word 2013 users get out of the box).
  • pictures/images: will use a picture content control if the field contains base64 encoded data, or the string PICTURE or string IMAGE
  • checkbox: generated if value is true or false
  • escaped Flat OPC XML: a bound rich text content control will be inserted if the element contains the string FLAT-OPC or the string   ?mso-application progid=”Word.Document
  • date control: used if the element content is the string DATE

Have fun.

Word 2013 repeatingSection content controls – ready for prime time?

January 17th, 2015 by Jason

For developers wondering about Microsoft’s commitment to content controls, Office 2013 was certainly good news.

In Microsoft’s “What’s new for Word 2013 developers”, 2 of the 4 items were about content controls:

  • Enhancements to content controls
  • UI for XML mappings

And in 4 of the 5 reasons relate to content controls!

The MSDN article “What’s new with content controls in Word 2013” describes the changes in detail, but one of them was the introduction of repeating section content controls, which are comparable to OpenDoPE repeats (which docx4j has supported for ages).

The question is whether the time is ripe to migrate from OpenDoPE repeats to Word 2013 repeatingSection content controls?

My suggested answer is “no, or at least, not yet”, because

  1. Word 2010 strips out Word 2013 repeating content controls, and does so without warning!  Compare OpenDoPE repeats, which work in Word 2007, 2010 and 2013.  So until Word 2010 becomes irrelevant (or support is back ported), Word 2013 repeating content controls can’t be used in a generic solution.
  2. Word 2013 doesn’t handle the case of repeat zero times as you’d expect; it leaves a single instance, which will cause problems in many applications.

For authoring, the XML Mapping Pane in Word 2013 also leaves a bit to be desired.  For more details, please see w15RepeatingSection_cf_OpenDoPE.docx

Even so, docx4j 3.2.2 will support processing Word 2013 repeating content controls, for those who still choose to use them.