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.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
7 min read
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

new Internet application platforms, communicating more fluently with back-end databases and customer relationship management systems.

XForms versus Web Forms
Although XForms offers advances over current standards-based HTML forms, some W3C members worry that it faces an uphill battle because it isn't supported by the current generation of Web browsers. That means Web surfers using today's browsers will have to download and install a plug-in to make it work, slowing adoption.

Web Forms 2.0, by contrast, will be compatible with current browsers. But critics of the proposal fault its reliance on scripting, a programming method they claim isn't suitable for industrial-strength applications.

With Web Forms 2.0 poised to break out of its working group, the W3C will have to disappoint one or more of its forms factions.

WHAT-WG has announced its intention to submit the draft to the W3C, posing the potentially awkward possibility of the consortium advocating two conflicting avenues for Web forms.

"It's going to be a bit of a struggle for the W3C to determine what they want this to ultimately do," said John Boyer, senior product architect and research scientist at PureEdge Solutions, in Victoria, British Columbia, whose company uses XForms. "I'm sure they don't want to lose control over defining the vocabulary of the Web, and at the same time, they don't want to be seen as sending a mixed message in doing two alternate dialects. This has by no means been decided yet."

Though the success of one method or another might not seem to make much difference to the person filling out an order form, the fate of open standards in the process could determine whether that form can relay the data it collects to any standards-compliant database or banking system, or whether it can only operate within certain proprietary systems.

The fate of a standard could also determine whether the order form could be accessed in any standards-compliant Web browser, or if it would be available only to users of a particular operating system--an outcome that has browser makers and others worried about the role of Microsoft.

WHAT-WG has taken some liberties with naming its specification--there is no "Web Forms 1.0" as such. The HTML 4 specification does specify how to construct forms on the Web, but that spec, last updated in 1999, is a relic in Internet time.

In an attempt to modernize Web forms, the W3C in 2000 launched the XForms initiative, an ambitious attempt to build forms out of XML, or Extensible Markup Language, a W3C recommendation for writing documents in a highly structured way so that computers, as well as people, can make sense of them.

In the world of forms, machine-readable documents are a big plus. They let back-end databases communicate with front-end Web sites,

and they can let computers keep track of what fields collect what types of information.

The W3C started releasing XForms drafts in 2000 and didn't put out a final recommendation until three years later. Analysts at the time blamed that delay on market apathy.

Today apathy is no longer the problem, as developers and vendors survey a sweeping array of technology platforms competing to build the next generation of Web-based applications. The W3C now finds XForms competing with those wide-ranging technologies.

In October, the W3C launched a working group to address Web applications with what it calls compound document formats, which include XForms. The WHAT-WG is also hammering out a draft specification dedicated to extending HTML for use with Web applications.

Worried about Microsoft
Though EdgeIPK and other developers look askance at XForms for its uncertain fit into the Internet application puzzle, browser makers still want a standards-based forms technology to help the Web steer clear of proprietary application platforms. They're particularly concerned about Microsoft's sprawling vision for Windows "Longhorn" applications built in the XML-based XAML markup language using Longhorn's Avalon graphics system. Browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Opera and Apple's Safari will be useless to access these Internet-based Windows applications.

Pinning their hopes on Web Forms 2.0, these browser makers and standards advocates worry that full implementations of XForms will require a whole new generation of browsers.

"The XForms group tried to do the right thing, but as a result they dropped backwards compatibility," said Hakon Lie, Opera's chief technology officer, that company's representative on W3C's advisory committee, and a WHAT-WG founder. "And I think that's very unfortunate, because trying to replace a few hundred million browsers is a rather hard thing to do, and I don't think XForms is 10 times better."

The idea of native support for XForms in the Web's most common browser--Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which accounts for about 90 percent of the market--is a long shot at best. Microsoft's grander Longhorn ambitions aside, the company supplies the proprietary

InfoPath technology for forms in its Office suite, it has not supported the W3C's XForms work, and it hasn't added significant new standards support to its IE browser in years.

That said, some third-party extensions do render XForms in IE.

Mozilla, seen as a rising browser force since the success of its Firefox releases, is backing Web Forms 2.0, though Mozilla contributors from Novell and IBM are hammering out a Mozilla extension that would provide XForms support.

Native support for XForms in Mozilla and its Gecko rendering engine is not on the foundation's near-term agenda as it takes a wait-and-see approach to the W3C recommendation.

"XForms is not a Web standard," said Brendan Eich, a founding member of Mozilla in charge of technical direction, the creator of JavaScript and a member of WHAT-WG. "It's a relatively new spec seeing early-adopter use in intranets."

Killing sheep to make goats
WHAT-WG members say the forms dispute illustrates a larger conflict over whether the W3C should proceed in a "revolutionary" mode, tackling problems from square one and coming up with technically elegant solutions--even if that results in the loss of backward-compatibility with older browsers--or an "evolutionary" mode, maintaining older technologies like HTML 4 and extending the usefulness of current browsing software.

"This gets to the question of what the W3C is all about," Lie said. "Is it about making revolutions all the time? Do we kill all the sheep and start with goats? Or should the W3C maintain older specs like CSS and HTML?"

The evolution versus revolution debate over forms centers on the use of scripting--specifically JavaScript--to perform important tasks in forms-based applications.

With current HTML Web forms, a Web author needs scripts to do things like validate the form or add up columns as fields are filled. For example, using HTML forms, Web authors typically use a scripting language to check that every phone number entered has an area code, or to automatically total columns in a spreadsheet.

XForms uses a declarative approach for validation and other crucial form functionality: The Web author or application designer declares that the application should validate the form or total the columns, and it

does, but not using today's generation of browsers.

XForms defenders downplay the revolution versus evolution debate.

"The Web has always had the approach of a bit of evolution here, a bit of revolution there," said Steven Pemberton, chair of the W3C's HTML and forms working groups and a researcher at the Centre for Mathematics and Computer Science in Amsterdam. "HTML 4 was largely evolutionary--it still ran in old software. But at a given moment, to make any progress, you have to add new functionality, which means that people have to get new software."

Pemberton blasted the scripting approach taken in Web Forms 2.0, saying it doesn't scale well, is harder to maintain, doesn't address industry requirements and use cases, and doesn't provide the ability to take snapshots of each step in a forms-based process for sensitive industrial or governmental applications.

"The WHAT approach works OK for small examples," Pemberton said. "But actors like the Department of Defense say 'no scripting.'"

Pemberton said the W3C membership hadn't shown much enthusiasm for WHAT-WG's work in the past, instead preferring XML-based standards.

By contrast, he pointed to XForms implementations by W3C members Oracle and Sun Microsystems--in addition to those by Novell and IBM--and promised more announcements of support in coming months from big companies he declined to name.

"I understand where WHAT is coming from, but they are browser makers, not forms experts," Pemberton said. "It is important to build something that is future-proof and not a Band-Aid solution. Forms (technology) is the basis of the e-commerce revolution and so it is important to do it right."