XML forms specification approved by W3C

The World Wide Web Consortium on Tuesday gave standards approval to a technology for designing Web-based forms used to collect, input and extract native XML data from enterprise systems and business applications.

The specification called XForms was released by the W3C as a Candidate Recommendation, the group’s official language that signifies a specification is ready for implementation.

XForms is intended to make it easier for companies to build Web-based forms and to gather data from those forms. XForms separates the content displayed in the forms - such as a price list - from the presentation, allowing users to design forms once and display them on a variety of devices while importing data from a multitude of dynamic sources.

But perhaps the most important development is that corporations will now have a way to capture data in native XML format, which can then be stored and shared among any systems that supports XML.

“All of a sudden it creates the one bit of functionality that’s been missing in the XML-based Web, which is interacting with XML documents. It’s inputting and editing data natively in XML,” says Steven Pemberton, co-chairman of the XForms Working Group and a researcher at CWI, the Dutch national research institute.

Forms-based development has been the backbone of electronic commerce for collecting data and executing transactions, but even with the advent of XHTML, forms technology remains labor intensive and somewhat rigid.

XForms is the evolution of the XHTML effort that adds ease of development and flexibility to deployment. It will become part of the XHTML 2.0 specification, slated for completion sometime next year. But XForms also supports other markup languages, including Scalable Vector Graphics.

“The purpose of XForms is to take the experience with HTML forms over the past 10 years and try to fix things that could be better,” Pemberton says.

He says one example of this is eliminating the scripting that needs to be done to check the validity of data, such as a date being entered in the correct format. With XForms, validation of the data is part of the specification. Pemberton says XForms does not dictate the display of forms and their controls such as drop-down menus or radio buttons, which means that the same form can be modified on the fly for display on any size device, including speech-enabled Web browsers. And he says XForms returns data to a server in native XML, eliminating the need for translation and more closely integrating it with other XML-based systems.

XForms has three basic components: a client that supports the specification, such as a Web browser or Java-based interface; a server component that can build an XForm and send it to an XForms client; and a protocol for defining the communication between the server and client.

A range of vendors are already supporting XForms in current or upcoming products, including Adobe, AOL/Netscape, Cardiff, Computer Associates,  IBM, Novell, NTT DoCoMo, Openwave, Oracle, PureEdge Solutions, Mozquito Technologies, Sony/Ericsson and Xerox.

Microsoft last month introduced a product called XDocs, which is vaguely defined as a forms application for inputting XML data, but Microsoft has not said if it will support XForms.

“There are already 17 implementations available, which shows a strong demand for what is being offered by XForms,” Pemberton says.

Novell, for one, released on Tuesday a technology preview for integrating XForms with its Extend platform and tools. The platform’s Web Application Server, Composer tool for data integration and Director for creating portal interfaces will all support XForms.

“Novell wants the XForms functionality on its Web Application Server. We want a visual design capability to drag and drop components to build XForms and to bind to data sources,” says Ashish Larivee, product manager for Novell’s Extend. She also said Novell is developing a technology called Page Flow to add a workflow element to XForms.

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