November 12, 2002 12:00 PM PST

W3C recommends online forms standard

The World Wide Web Consortium has reached a critical stage in a new standard that governs how developers use forms on the Internet.

The W3C, a standards body that governs some Internet protocols, said Tuesday that it was publishing the XForms specification as a candidate recommendation. That essentially means the W3C's working group has finished its main work on the specification, and it's ready for outside developers to begin testing it on their own.

The W3C has been working on XForms for about two years. XForms, based on XML (Extensible Markup Language), is intended to make development of client access software--or Web forms--reusable on PCs, handheld devices, cellular phones and other systems. A forms protocol based on HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), already exists. Forms developed using XForms, by comparison, are dynamic, meaning that their queries can change based on new information as it is entered and validated.

"There are problems with (the current) approach. The way the form looks and the information it gathers are linked together, so you can't change easily for Pocket PC or if you want to use it in Japan, for instance," said Ron Schmelzer, a senior analyst at ZapThink, a research firm that focuses on XML and Web services.

The release of the XForms specification sets the stage for a clash over rival approaches to Web forms. Microsoft recently announced plans for XDocs, a forms product that would work with its Office suite.

XDocs is also based on XML and is supposed to help companies design and use forms that can link desktop documents to back-end data sources. Microsoft expects to ship XDocs mid-2003.

XForms already has some big names behind it. Novell and IBM both released statements Tuesday in support of the proposed standard.

Novell also said it plans to provide visual tools based on XForms in the next major release of Novell exteNd, its Web application development suite. And the company has released a preview of XForms technology for developers.

"The ability to have sophisticated forms so that users can interface with machines more intuitively is perhaps the biggest problem for the non-Microsoft lobby to solve," said James Governor, principal analyst at market research firm RedMonk. "We see IBM's involvement (in XForms) as very significant. This has been one of IBM's blind spots. They are finally beginning to think about how to provide alternates to customers who do not want Microsoft front ends."

The candidate recommendation period runs until March, said Janet Daly, a W3C spokeswoman. The next step after that is for the working group to review the implementations that have been demonstrated and go forward with a proposed recommendation.

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