Online forms standard gets a push

The Web's leading standards organization nudges forward XForms, a long-delayed specification for creating Web forms using XML.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
The Web's leading standards organization has nudged forward its specification for creating Web forms after a long delay in the standards process.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) on Friday published XForms 1.0 as a proposed recommendation. The technology, based on the digital document lingua franca Extensible Markup Language (XML), is a way of building online forms to be more flexible than current Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML)-based documents.

The new standard can take advantage of other tools in the W3C's arsenal of recommendations and work with a wider variety of devices and applications.

"HTML forms have formed the backbone of the e-commerce revolution, and having shown their worth, have also indicated numerous ways they could be improved," reads the W3C's new draft.

The W3C said that since forms built using the XForms standard clearly separate the code used to define Web page controls from the data they collect, XForms documents are more easily reusable. They can be written once and used in many places.

The W3C has long sought to further that goal with Web technologies in general, attempting to separate form from content in Web documents. Its Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) recommendations, for example, let a Web author determine the color, font and other presentation attributes of a site's pages in a single document, rather than having to recode those characteristics for each of the site's pages individually.

In the case of XForms, a form written according to the protocol could change on the fly based on what information a user enters. And it could be more easily repurposed for use with other computing applications and devices.

That will result in fewer round-trips to the server, greater flexibility for using different devices, and less need for writing scripts, according to the W3C.

Despite the protocol's apparent promise, the recommendation has stalled on its way through the consortium's recommendation process. The release of the XForms standard was originally scheduled for March.

The reason for the delay, according to one analyst who follows XML-based technologies: market and vendor apathy.

"Not much is happening with regards to adoption of XForms," Ron Schmelzer, analyst with ZapThink, wrote in an e-mail interview. "As a result, without any real pressure to develop and release products, there is little motivation to speed the spec through the lengthy W3C process...All is quiet on the W3C XForms front and it will take some serious interest by vendors and/or end-user customers to make things happen more expediently."

The W3C counters with examples of companies that are implementing XForms, including Novell and IBM.

But the list has notable absences--particularly Microsoft, which is also conspicuously absent from the W3C's XForms working group.

That's because Microsoft has its own XML-based forms technology: InfoPath, formerly known as XDocs.

"Microsoft has its own home-grown lingo that does basically what XForms can do," said Schmelzer. "My understanding is that there simply isn't enough end-user demand for XForms to justify Microsoft and others developing this spec in conjunction with others through the tedious W3C process. Basically, if they're going to spend time shepherding a spec through a process, it might as well be their own product. They'll worry about interoperability later. Right now, people aren't even using dynamic forms, let alone needing a standard for interoperability."