XForms and XDocs: friend or foe?

by Micah Dubinko

Just when the XML world seemed to be slowing down, Micrsoft announced sweeping new XML support in their upcoming Office 11 product, including "XDocs", a piece of software that connects data entry with XML. Is Microsoft's strategy a tribute or an insult to XForms?

XForms is definately interesting to watch. Kurt Cagle, in his Metaphorical Web newsletter says

"I have a certain perverse fascination with XForms ... it is the one standard that almost nobody wants to see become standard, because it will effectively lay the foundation for replacing all of those $100,000 e-commerce packages that seem only to make things even more complex and entangled than they were before companies adopted these packages."

[November 19, "Form and XForm"]

Unlike other acronym-loaded technologies, XForms had the luxury of developing mostly under the radar of faceless corporations and relentless hype, and the results are impressive on a technical level. People are starting to notice. Timothy Dyck of eWeek lists several technical benefits of XForms, and then says

"I can't wait to deploy this technology in our own applications. There are big benefits for users and developers ahead."

XForms a Huge Step Forward for Web Forms

Where does XDocs fit into the picture?

The general buzz is that all of Office 11 (which I presumably won't actually see until it ships in mid 2003) can cope with nearly any XML, so that the familiar activities of users (like using Word and Excel) end up editing XML documents. XDocs fits into the picture by bringing another familiar activity--filling forms--into the Office fold in the new category of an "information-gathering" tool.

If anything, Microsoft's moves add to the feeling of inevitabliity around rich client-side XML interfaces. From 50,000 feet (the usual altitude of a Pointy-haired Boss) XDocs and XForms applications seem pretty similar. What really are the differences?

  1. XForms is a Royalty-free W3C technology. There are multiple choices of tools, both commercial and open source. You never need a subscription to Microsoft Office in order to fill in a form.

  2. XForms is ready today. Even as you read this, people are already being productive with XForms tools.

  3. As a W3C technology, XForms focuses on interoperability. The XForms Working Group is finalizng a Test Suite to ensure that no single vendor sets the standards.

One way or another, the "Universal Interface Virtual Machine (UIVM)", as Paul Prescod puts it, is coming soon to a desktop near you. Will XDocs be a standards-based, web addressable, zero-install, client agnostic tool for everybody? Hard to say with an unreleased product. One way for Microsoft to kill four birds with one stone would be to make XDocs an XForms-based technology.

Yes, that's right. Microsoft needs to support XForms, though they probably need some encouragement to do so. Every Office program has a "Save as Web Page" feature. What will come out of XDocs when you choose that menu item? For it to be anything other than XForms would be silly, comparable to "Save as Web Page" in Word not producing HTML. And from the competitive angle, it seems inevitable that OpenOffice and other software alternatives (including Mozilla, Xopus, and blogging tools) will support XForms or XDocs-like functionality in short order.

Kurt Cagle, from the same newsletter quoted earlier, says

"I have a feeling that XForms will end up being a disruptive technology that will significantly change the landscape of computing."

What can you do to get ready for the Universal Interface?

  • Start learning all you can about XForms and similar technologies. A good place to start is the book I'm writing, which has full text-in-progress available online.

  • If you have contact with Microsoft, insist on XForms support in Office 11 (and IE while you're at it).

  • If you have contact with (or contribute code to) other projects, take a long look at XForms to see how it can enhance or simplify your user interface.

  • Subscribe to the XForms mailing list by sending a message to www-forms@w3.org with the subject "Subscribe". This mailing list is the heartbeat of the XForms community.

Once again, the Web is changing, and XML is the driving force behind it--I couldn't be happier.

Post your comments on XForms and XDocs here:


2002-12-03 00:09:22
What will Microsoft support
For me XML and all those packages are all well and good. That Microsoft will support it is ok. To me it is important that when Microsoft decides to support open standards, it will support XML standards as used in Open Office.

When Microsoft does not offer full compatability with open standards, it makes itself less relevant. Xforms or Xdocs what is that to me? So far I consider it pie in the sky, maybe tomorrow maybe not. Marketing has its place but all those Microsoft terms are like smoke and mirrors; it is in every "release" something different, something different from what you were let to expect

2003-01-09 11:22:55
Forms Versus Documents
The W3C product is called XFORMS. The Microsoft product is called XDOCS. There is a difference between a FORM and a DOCUMENT. The author of this article seems to ignore this when complaining that XDOCS is Microsoft's answer to XFORMS. A FORM is a data entry tool. A DOCUMENT is formatted text.
2003-02-19 05:06:03
Forms Versus Documents
whoever wrote the origonal "Forms Versus Documents" posting (2003-01-09 11:22:55 anonymous)
has not read any of the hype from Microshaft about XDocs.

XDocs is all about creating data collection applications" that in my mind are Forms, that can be pre-populted from other microsoft Office 11 documents.