Form and Function

Buzz pointed me to an interesting ZDNet article on the future of web forms.

Let’s face it: 10 years in, forms on the web still suck.

Oh, sure, we’re used to it, but the tools for web-based forms are still light-years behind the tools for building them into actual Windows, Mac, or Unix applications. Developers either make do with what they have, or they put together a complicated, hard-to-maintain, incompatible mess to work around the shortcomings and give you something that works the way you might expect it to. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to just put a combo box on a page instead of having to use both a drop-down and a text box, then have the server try to figure out which value to accept.)

There are two main groups pushing for the next generation of website UI: XForms and Web Forms 2.0. The main difference is that XForms starts over from square one with an XML structure, while Web Forms 2.0 extends HTML. W3C has been working on XForms for at least three years, while Web Forms 2.0 is the first major project from WHATWG, a collaboration between Mozilla, Opera, and Apple, makers of the three main “alternative” web browsers.

(Note that Microsoft is conspicuously absent from both of these groups. They’re focusing on an XML-based UI framework called XAML, which they’re building into the next version of Windows and which, to me anyway, has always sounded like reinventing the wheel Mozilla created with XUL.)

One of the main criticisms of Web Forms 2.0 is that it “relies on scripting.” I found that criticism odd, though, considering that XForms relies on an entirely new browser or a plugin. As I understand it, the idea of WHATWG is to design standards that can be implemented in browsers and be implemented in scripting as a fall-back.

Let’s suppose for example that both XForms and Web Forms 2.0 get built into Firefox 2.0. Now let’s suppose two online stores build their sites, one using XForms and one using Web Forms 2.0. The one using XForms will force customers to upgrade to FF 2.0, but the one using Web Forms should be able to use JavaScript so that customers using FF 1.0—not to mention Internet Explorer—can make purchases as well. More importantly, HTML’s built-in graceful degradation features allow even older browsers to fall back on the form language they do know. Sure, you’ll have to wait a second for it to tell you that you left out the @ in your email address, but it’ll still work.

To me, that gives Web Forms 2.0 an advantage, at least in the near term. Even with IE7 on the horizon and Firefox marching ahead, we’ll still be dealing with today’s browsers for several years.

View Kelson Vibber's LinkedIn profileView Kelson Vibber's profile on LinkedIn