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Docs >> Forms >> Apps

Posted by pbrittan on August 5, 2003 at 10:10 AM PDT

There is a natural evolution of platform technologies from document publishing to forms processing to application delivery. The Web is the leading example of this, but Adobe Acrobat PDF and Microsoft InfoPath are on their way.

The W3C has finally published its specification for XForms 1.0, after much delay and without the participation of Microsoft (not surprisingly). XForms is intended to make Web-based forms more usable by doing a better job of separating data values from form description and supporting cascading style sheets. The main benefit of these improvements is to make forms more reusable and easier to change and maintain with less re-coding.

There is an interesting evolution of platform technologies that start out as simple document publication frameworks (displaying read-only text and graphics to users), then, presumably under pressure from users, these platforms get extended to support forms (meaning that users can enter data which is then written back to a database on the server). The next logical step is to make these forms increasingly dynamic until they come to resemble full-fledged application delivery platforms.

This is exactly the evolution that the Web itself has undergone over the past 10 years. Most people agree that the Web does a fine job for publishing documents -- the truly revolutionary paradigm shift that the Web has delivered to date has been allowing all businesses to have universally accessible marketing materials on-line and to let anyone in the world do research through Google rather than the much, much more tedious means available before the Web. Web forms have allowed e-commerce to start to get a firm foothold. But Web technology is not as strong at forms processing as it is at doc publishing, as evidenced by the need for XForms at all. In the past few years, companies have tried hard to shoehorn full-blow applications into browsers using Web technologies, but these efforts have had very mixed results. Many vendors and standards groups have come out with a large stack of add-on technologies designed to patch up the problems that HTTP/HTML present for application developers. Other companies, like my own, have tried to rethink the application delivery problem from the ground up.

Now both Adobe and Microsoft are headed down the same road with the new forms-processing capabilities in Acrobat and XDocs/InfoPath. The question on everyone’s tongue now is how these products will compete with each other. A deeper question is how they will compete with HTML/XForms and whether they will indeed progress towards being full application delivery platforms.

It seems that there is market pressure for a platform to provide a continuum of capabilities from document publishing to application delivery. Maybe docs, forms, and apps are really all meant to be the same thing. But how we’ll achieve that is still far from clear.

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