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?
“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.”
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?
- 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.
- XForms is ready today. Even as you read this, people are already being productive with XForms tools.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
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