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Standards body wants online forms brought up-to-date

A leading standards organization releases a draft of a specification that promises to make forms work on various Web access devices and perform better with XML-based software.

Calling current technology for online forms "outdated," the Web's leading standards organization today released a draft of a new specification that promises to make forms work on various Web access devices and perform better with applications and databases based on XML.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) today released a draft for the XForms data model, one of three installments of a proposed XForms specification that will govern how Web designers create those pesky forms that ask your name, credit card numbers, clothing measurements and other personal information.

The data model establishes how forms will "validate" the information you enter. For example, if the form asks for a phone number, the data model lets the form make sure that you have entered 10 digits instead of just seven. Web authors currently have to use unwieldy scripts to validate form data.

"The existing form technology dates back to the early days of the Web," said Dave Raggett, the W3C's HTML activity lead. "It was a bit of a compromise, with no sort of built-in validation mechanism. The technology was very limited and painful to use. Now we are applying all the knowledge acquired over the years in forms systems and applying them to get the Web up to speed."

In addition to the data model, the other two XForms installments, still in progress, include a layer that deals with how data gets transported over the Internet and a layer that defines the user interface.

Like much of the W3C's recent work, the XForms specification is based on the increasing role played by XML (Extensible Markup Language), a "metalanguage" that Web and application developers can use to craft their own markup languages with special tags and functions.

For example, the W3C has recommended that the basic language of Web design, HTML, be replaced by XML-based XHTML.

With XML playing an increasing role in linking information stored in databases to Web sites, the W3C is touting the XML-friendly XForms as a tool for making forms a more flexible and useful part of that link.

"Forms are windows onto databases," Raggett said. "The XForm uses XML to represent data, which then makes it easier to talk to the back-end systems and XML-based databases."

Another goal at the top of the W3C's list is to make forms more friendly to browsers on non-PC computing devices, such as handheld computers, cell phones, televisions, printers and scanners. XForms will let people enter form data on paper through a scanner or by speaking to a voice-activated browser.

Web authors sometimes have to write different forms for each kind of browser that downloads them. The W3C's goal with XForms is to let those authors write forms once that will run on any browser.