Fight over 'forms' clouds future of Net applications

They're used in everything from Google searches to Web tax filings. But standards struggle is rattling W3C and confounding developers.

As Net heavyweights vie to define the next generation of Web applications, the Web's main standards body is facing a revolt within its own ranks over electronic forms, a cornerstone of interactive documents.

This week, a breakaway faction of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) said its work on the Web Forms 2.0 specification is nearly done and put out a call for final comments. The splinter group, which includes browser makers Apple Computer, the Mozilla Foundation and Opera Software, calls itself WHAT-WG, or the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group.

The move brings a new entry into the race to take forms software to the next level, complicating efforts to create an open standards foundation for emerging Internet applications that could shape the competitive landscape in software development for years to come. It also marks a major new headache for the W3C, whose XForms recommendation, unveiled in 2003, has long been stymied amid resistance from proprietary software makers, especially Microsoft.

"At the moment it's mass confusion," said Dharmesh Mistry, chief technology officer of Newbury, U.K.-based EdgeIPK, which builds forms-based applications for clients in the financial services industry. "The W3C is saying the answer is XForms. Microsoft is saying it's XAML. Macromedia is saying its Flash MX. And Mozilla is saying it's XUL. If you look at it from the point of view of an organization, you're not going to say, 'We're going to write our rich Internet applications in one language and the forms in XForms.'"

The battle illustrates chronic fissures in the politics of Web technology development, with substantial consequences for the continued relevance of open standards in electronic forms--a ubiquitous tool that's used to gather information on the Web and in other digital applications.

Forms based on current Web standards are used in every Google search, every Amazon.com sale, every automated blog entry, every online tax payment, and every Web e-mail log-in.

Now the industry wants more sophisticated forms that can underlie

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