Last October, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) unveiled the fruits of a four-year effort to develop the first internationally recognised standard for describing an electronic form.
To many observers, the arrival of XForms 1.0 is an example of standards-making at its worst: it is too big, too ambitious and, critically, too late to seriously influence a process that is already well served by a variety of commercial products.
But to its supporters, XForms is not just a better way of designing, deploying and managing e-forms. It is a key addition to the W3C’s growing collection of XML-derived standards and potentially a powerful new platform for creating a new class of forms-driven workflow applications.
First and foremost, XForms represents the long-awaited successor to the HTML forms technology that has provided the de facto standard means of building web-based e-forms for the past decade.
The role that HTML forms now play in corporate information gathering should not be underestimated. Despite being a relatively basic technology, they are at the heart of many online information gathering and transaction processing applications.
However, from the point of view of application developers and corporate information managers, HTML’s simplicity is also a source of growing frustration.
Perhaps worst of all, HTML offers little direct support for XML, which is increasingly the key language of electronic business. XML is used to describe the processes that feed on and exploit the data that e-forms are intended to capture.
For these reasons alone, the emergence of XForms promises to be a boon for business, but with 10 years of e-business experience to learn from, XForms developers have set out to do more than merely address HTML’s shortcomings.
XForms improves on HTML in a number of fundamental ways. Unlike HTML, for example, there is no assumption that organisations only want to design forms for use on the Internet. XForms is architected to ensure that presentation is clearly separated from function and is designed from the ground up to support a variety of devices and access methods.
This enables developers to design a form once, but to deploy it for use with multiple devices, such as PCs, handheld computers or mobile phones, or to produce it as a printed form. Indeed, using voice XML (VXML) as the user interface, XForms can even be voice, rather than keyboard driven.
Designing and subsequently managing XForms should also be simpler than using conventional HTML methods. By providing developers with a much richer set of ready-to-use design features, XForm proponents claim the technology will typically provide designers with 20% of the necessary capabilities, while eliminating 80% of the scripting that would have been required with HTML.
And once a form has been created using XForms, thanks to its integral support for XML schemas and facilities such as XPath, the data captured by an XForm can be tightly integrated with the back-office processes and other applications. This makes it easier for forms to be self-validating and to be dynamically populated with information in a way that makes completing the form a truly interactive process.
Taken together, the advances embraced in XForms ought to make it a natural migration choice for any organisation that currently uses HTML forms.
However, during the 10 years that it has taken the XML community to get around to creating its own e-forms standard, the rest of the industry has been busy. So, instead of having the e-forms stage to itself, XForms now finds itself playing the role of late starter in a race with several important proprietary products.
The two most important of these proprietary alternatives are Adobe’s PDF-oriented forms products and the InfoPath forms management applications embedded in Microsoft Office 2003.
Both products offer similar capabilities to XForms, providing developers with tools that streamline form creation, deployment and management, and both – to differing extents – offer links to the world of XML. Perhaps most pertinently, they are each designed to be attractive to their vendors’ large and well established user bases.
Adobe’s forms products, for instance, offer an electronic upgrade path for organisations that use the company’s design products to generate paper forms, and can now exploit the near-ubiquitous Adobe Acrobat Reader to distribute forms to PCs users, and even some handheld computers.
InfoPath, of course, has the advantage of being bundled with the professional edition of Microsoft’s strategic personal productivity suite, and is designed to support the company’s preferred back-office integration tools, SharePoint and BizTalk.
The challenge facing XForms’ supporters is to find a compelling reason why Microsoft and Adobe customers should ignore their vendor’s strategic e-forms offerings in favour of an alternative that is only now beginning to generate widespread industry commitment.
It is a tough challenge and some experts are not entirely convinced that XForms is up to it. “Microsoft and Adobe have staked out the corporate solutions market already,” says Bill Trippe, president of independent consultancy New Millennium Publishing and senior editor of the Gilbane Report. “And Microsoft always wins,” he adds.
Trippe’s final point may have been said tongue in cheek, but he and other XForms doubters know that the technologies’ window of opportunity was already beginning to close when the W3C released XForms 1.0 last October and it has been narrowing ever since. To force it open again, XForms needs to find some champions to commercialise the standard, and to find a clear marketing message to deflect customers’ attention away from the compelling arguments of its rivals.
Predictably, most of XForms early advocates have been smaller players. Cardiff Software, now part of Verity, was among the first document management software companies to embrace XForms and has since been joined by others such as PureEdge. These companies have committed to add XForm outputs to their products and eventually to support it natively throughout their forms processing products.
The only “pure” XForms offerings to emerge so far have come from even smaller vendors. In the UK, for example, X-port.net’s FormsPlayer is one of the earliest XForms processors to reach the market that, together with the company’s Internet Explorer plug-in, allows would-be early adopters to begin creating XForms and distributing them over corporate intranets.
Mark Birbeck, X-port’s founder and CEO, claims that his company has already attracted interest and some sales from organisations keen not to mortgage themselves to a proprietary software vendor. Not only that, but some early users have recognised the advantages XForms has as a means of distributing new forms to large communities of users.
In the case of one user, says Birbeck, binary form changes that would normally have taken six weeks to percolate through his customer’s internal security processes are now automatically distributed with no requirement for security testing at all.
In cases like this, says Birbeck, XForms is actually blurring the distinction between distributing new forms and delivering new applications. It is this capability, rather than simply the ability to be a better forms management environment than HTML, which is likely to be XForms’ key differentiator in its battle with proprietary products from Adobe and Microsoft.
Certainly, according to Trippe, XForms’ ability to integrate closely with other XML standards and parallel developments in the genesis of XHTML (the XML-friendly successor to the HTML browser language) “are combining to create a new generation of browser that brings a lot more computational force to the browser itself”.
In the context of e-forms, this means Internet-based, device-independent forms that do not just capture information, but validate and process it in situ on the user’s client device, which could be a phone, a laptop or even a digital television.
Suddenly, e-commerce is no longer a server resource and network bandwidth-hungry activity, but a highly portable ‘rich-client’ process that fits snugly with organisations’ next generation of XML-defined business processes.
Ironically, this vision of forms-based real-time interaction between an organisation’s business processes and its customers, trading partners and agents, is the same one that Adobe and Microsoft have used to build the business case for their proprietary e-forms products.
Now, however, as XForms gains momentum and other corporate giants such as IBM and Novell begin to put their weight behind this new consortium, it is quite possible that it will be the standards-based version of this vision that proves to be the most attractive.