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Is HTML a final form medium like PDF?

From: Dave Raggett <dsr@w3.org>
Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2007 16:30:45 +0000 (GMT)
To: public-html@w3.org, www-forms@w3.org
Message-ID: <Pine.LNX.4.64.0703211529270.5341@localhost>

On the HTML list, we have talked about the desire to make it easy 
for all kinds of people to edit web content from children to 
grandparents. It shouldn't be necessary to know and understand the 
details of HTML markup and CSS, let alone the DOM and how to write 
event handlers in JavaScript.

Smart editing tools can automate the generation of markup, style 
sheets and scripts, so that authors don't need to know about that 
level of detail. The problem comes when you want to reload the 
document and make further changes. If the semantics have been 
compiled into JavaScript, it is essentially impractical to get them 
back. This is the problem of how to round trip semantics from the 
editor to the document and back again.

If HTML is a final form medium like PDF that is essentially write 
only, then the solution is to author in a different format and have 
the machine automatically generate HTML for delivery to web 
browsers. At this point you might be saying that you have no 
difficulties with writing scripts and revel in the delights of PHP, 
ASP and Ruby on Rails, so what is all this nonsense about 
declarative formats? Well the answser is while that may be fine for 
you, it restricts the pool of people who can author web content for 
anything more complex than emails and blog entries to a relatively 
small clique. It is surely time to democratise web authoring!

Spreadsheets are attributed as having turned the personal computer 
from a hobby into a business tool, see [1]. Visicalc was introduced 
by Dan Bricklin in 1979 and soon followed by Lotus 1-2-3 and later 
yet by Microsoft Excel. Visicalc was one of the first "killer apps" 
that drove people to buy computers to be able to run it. The Web has 
yet to offer anything like the simplicity with which anyone can 
create a spreadsheet with some text and a few formualae, without any 
knowledge of programming. It is time to fix that!

Web Forms 2.0 provides incremental extensions to HTML4 forms, such 
as the ability to specify simple data types for numbers, dates and 
times, as well as the means to state min and max values, or to 
constrain entered text to match regular expressions. This is good!

What it currently lacks is the means to state simple formulae for 
calculated fields, and the means to state simple constraints such as 
this field must be greater than the value of that field, or that 
this field must be filled out under such and such conditions, or 
that this group of fields is relevant and should be shown when a 
given field has a particular value.

These can all be stated using simple JavaScript expressions. You can 
see a range of such examples at [2]. The equivalent WF2 examples are 
at [3]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spreadsheet
[2] http://www.w3.org/2007/03/XForms-Transitional/#examples
[3] http://www.w3.org/2007/03/WF2/

Web Forms 2.0 isn't cast in concrete, and it is time to look at how 
HTML Forms can take advantage of simple spreadsheet like 
expressions. Yes there are some details in Web Forms 2.0 that might 
need to change, but democratising web authoring is well worth it.

I have shown that it can be made to work on pretty much all modern 
web browsers, so the technical problems are definitely do able. If 
you have a technical question, I will do my best to answer it.

For people who hear the word declarative and reach for their 
AK-47, think of expressions as a way of writing event handlers that 
that even your mom will get.

p.s. if HTML is condemned to be a final form medium, it isn't the 
end of the world as there are standards based XML formats that work 
just fine and lots of experience at hand in automatically adapting 
the content to particular devices. But do we want to give up on HTML 
that easily!

  Dave Raggett <dsr@w3.org> http://www.w3.org/People/Raggett
Received on Wednesday, 21 March 2007 16:30:50 GMT

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