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E-forms standard finalized

The main standards body for the Web finishes work on XForms, an XML standard that will compete in the growing market for electronic forms.

The main standards body for the Web released the final specification Tuesday for XForms, a standard that will compete in the growing market for electronic forms.

XForms is an implementation of XML (Extensible Markup Language) designed for creating interactive forms that can automatically shuttle data to and from corporate computing resources such as databases and customer relationship management (CRM) systems. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has been working on XForms for several years to address limitations of forms based on HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), the main language of the Web. Tuesday's release of the "recommendation" for XForms 1.0 represents the final step in acceptance and publishing of the standard.

Computing giants such as Microsoft and Adobe Systems have seized on electronic forms as one of the most promising ways to automate entry and exchange of corporate data.

Microsoft will enter the market next week with the release of InfoPath, a new application included in its Office System family of software. InfoPath will allow office workers to create, view and complete XML-based forms and is expected to initially be focused on internal business processes such as human resources.

Adobe is trying to grab its own chunk of the e-forms market by adding XML capabilities to its portable document format (PDF), already widely used for electronic distribution of forms intended to be printed and filled out on paper.

Both the Microsoft and Adobe approaches, however, require the use of special client software to read and interact with forms. Other software makers--including smaller e-forms specialists such as Cardiff Software and PureEdge Solutions and computing giants such as IBM and Sun Microsystems--are promoting XForms as a more open approach to create forms that can be viewed and used from any Web browser.

"XForms...is key to ensuring that electronic Web transactions can be carried out in an open, interoperable manner," Rod Smith, vice president of emerging technologies at IBM, said in a statement. "It builds on the success of HTML forms to change how companies and individuals do business on the Web."

Curtis Sasaki, vice president of desktop solutions at Sun, said the company will build XForms-based functions into future versions of its StarOffice software. "We believe that XForms will take an important role in realizing Sun's vision of open XML standards for a heterogeneous web of devices ranging from cell phones and PDAs to modern desktops," he said.

Ron Schmelzer, an analyst at research company ZapThink, said that while XForms offers some advantages, it faces daunting challenges from Microsoft and Adobe tying their respective e-forms approaches to Office and PDF, both of which are already widely used in the workplace.

"The thing about e-forms is that you want users to adopt them," Schmelzer said. "In that respect, having market dominance either on the desktop or outside the firewall is really more important than interoperability. It's really more of a behavioral challenge, getting people to use this stuff."

Early XForms backers include London-based X-Port, which recently began distributing FormsPlayer, a free add-on for Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser that allows Web surfers to view and use XForms-based forms.