This paper presents XForma proposal for a general and powerful mechanism for handling forms in XML. XForm defines form-related constructs independent of any particular XML language and set of form controls. It defines the notion of formsheets as a mechanism for computing form values on the client, form values being arbitrary, typed XML documents. This enables a symmetrical exchange of data between clients and servers which is useful for example for database and workflow applications. Formsheets can be written in a variety of languageswe argue that the document transformation capabilities of XSL stylesheets make them an elegant choice.
Keywords: XML; form; formsheet; XForm; XSL
HTML defines a number of elements which taken together allows authors to construct formselements which can be used to solicit input from a user . HTML forms have proven themselves extremely useful and after hyperlinking must be said to be the most important way of performing user interaction on the Web. With XML becoming the standard format for data exchanged between applications on the Web it is interesting to reconsider what forms are and how they might work in the context of XML . This paper proposes a notion of XML forms which is quite different from HTML forms which we shall call XForms.
The following brief description of HTML forms is largely taken
from . A form in HTML is an instance
form element. It is a part of a document which
contains normal markup as well as a set of special elements called
form controls (text fields, checkboxes, menus, etc.).
Users interact with the form through its controls, completing
the form before submitting it to a remote entity, typically a
Web server, for processing.
Controls have a name, an initial value, and
a current value, each of which is a text string. The
name is given by the
name attribute while the initial
value of most controls may be specified with the control element's
value attribute. The current value is first set to
that of the initial value but may thereafter be modified through
user interaction and scripts. The form value or form
data set is a set of name-value pairs corresponding to the
names and current values of some of its controls. This is what
is sent to the server when a form is submitted for processing.
Where HTML defines a specific vocabulary for forms, e.g.
button, etc. elements, XML is
a general syntaxa language for defining languagesand
as such doesn't have a built-in notion of forms. As XML works
at a different level than HTML it is not surprising to find that
XML forms should operate differently from HTML forms, in particular
it would be nice if the abstract notion of what a form is could
be made to apply to different concrete applications of XML. The
forthcoming XML based version of HTML ()
is an important such application but by no means not the only
The proposal in this paper is to define a generic mechanism for how to do forms in XML. There are several parts to the proposal:
The XForms proposal doesn't define the actual elements making up a formthe form controlsneither does it specify the user interaction behaviour and semantics of such elements. This is left to XForm compatible XML languages. Examples are given in a (hypothetical) "wellformed HTML" application of XML, using the HTML form elements but in an XForm compliant manner.
We believe that specifying the core properties of forms independently of specific data and layout elements is a big advantage as it means that the same basic mechanism can be used regardless of the exact nature of the XML language at hand. This is analagous to how linking, stylesheets, and scripting are defined independently of the languages that use them, and this approach generally leads to better and more modular standards.
The rest of this paper is organized as follows. The XForm subjects mentioned above: form recognition, data set construction, submission, and typed form controls, are discussed in sections 2-5. Section 6 shows how workflow-like applications can be built using XForms and other XML technologies, and section 7 discusses related work.
Analogous to the workings of XLink, the existence of a form
is asserted by the presence of a form element. An XForm
aware processor recognizes an element as asserting the existence
of a form, by looking for the presence of a designated attribute
xf denotes the
XForm namespace identified in this paper by the URL
(XML namespaces are defined in ).
Any element can be used to assert form presence by including this
attribute. However, a particular XForms compliant XML language
may choose to single out certain elements as being form elements,
e.g. by defining fixed or default attribute values in
a document type definition, thus avoiding having to list them
in document instances themselves.
The XForm attributes are defined as a set of parameter entities which can be included in custom DTDs:
xf:form attribute has three defined values:
scopedform element. Activating the element implies submitting the corresponding enclosing form.
So the difference between
forms is that the former gets its value only from descendant elements
and its own attributes whereas the entire document can contribute
to the value of the latter.
Submit elements are allowed
only within a lexically enclosing
scoped form element
and its effect is to trigger submission of that enclosing form.
It is provided primarily as a mechanism for enabling a modular
XML based version of HTML to be defined to be in conformance with
The typical use of forms as we know them from HTML is to gather input from a user, submit it to a server, and getting a reply back with a response document. In other words a form behaves exactly like a hyperlink except that it allows for the collection and submission of data from the user agent, and it allows for the use of HTTP request methods other than GET . Hence we define a form to be an XML link with additional attributes specifying form-specific properties. In XLink terminology forms are usually inline links, i.e. the form element serves as one of its own resources (as does both links and forms in HTML), but we don't rule out the use of out-of-line forms. Similarly forms can be either simple or extended links.
form element corresponds to a simple,
inline link. Allowing forms to be extended links permits functionality
such as multi-ended links with additional information such as
titles and roles. This enriches the notion of forms but has little
impact on how they are defined or how they operate. Hence this
is not discussed further.
Problems may occur with attribute names as XForm is applied
to existing XML languages. An XForm compliant DTD may choose to
remap XForm attribute names in the manner of XLink. The attribute
xf:attributes consists of an even number of tokens.
This list is interpreted as a set of pairs where the first element
is the name of an XForms attribute and the second is the name
it is mapped to. For example, to map
one would have:
<!ATTLIST form xf:form CDATA #FIXED "scoped" xf:attributes CDATA #FIXED "action link">
When submitting a form to a processing agent the user agent must first build the form value. XForm values are either sets of name-value pairs in some representation or they are arbitrary XML documents constructed by a formsheet. For name-value data sets we allow the representations defined for use in HTML and add an XML encoding. The second class of form values is much more general and flexible, and can be used to construct form values in any XML language.
Form value construction is effected by the following form element attributes:
enctype attribute specifies the MIME type
of the form data set. For MIME-like transport protocols, this
will appear in the
Content-Type header of the form
submission. If the
formsheet attribute is not specified
form value construction depends only on the
attribute, which MUST then be defined and take on one of the following
The first two are as defined for use in HTML [13,
11] and the
are described below.
The MIME types
are defined as generic types for carrying XML encoded data . The
is defined to overcome constraints placed on character set encodings
text top-level MIME types. The two types are
When a form doesn't specify a
formsheet the corresponding
data set is a set of name-value pairs. When
is one of the two
xml subtypes this set is represented
map element which consists of a sequence of
item elements, each of which represents a single
|XML DTD for Encoding of Name-Value Pairs|
The name of the form field is given by the mandatory
attribute of item elements. The value of a form field is either
available "inline" as the contents of the corresponding
item element or, if the
href attribute is defined,
"out-of-line" as the contents of the resource identified
by that URI. The resource may be transported as part of the same
data unit, e.g. as a separate MIME bodypart, or may be remote.
Map items are considered unordered and there is no requirement
that they have unique names. We shall refer to such data sets
as being XForm-map encoded. This DTD has an XML namespace
identified by the URL
An HTML form with input fields for name, tel, and email might then result in a XForm-map value of
<?xml version="1.0"?> <map xmlns="http://www.ietf.org/XML/NS/map"> <item name="name">Joe Bloggs</item> <item name="tel">+1-222-333-4444</item> <item name="email">firstname.lastname@example.org</item> </map>
charset attribute specifies the character
set used in the XML encoded "document" but field values
can contain any characters whatsoever as long as the generating
user agent obeys standard XML encoding rules.
When carried over a MIME-like transport, e.g. HTTP or Internet
Content-Type header field takes the value
of the forms
enctype attribute. When used with HTTP
XForm-map encoded data sets are always carried in the request
method="GET" which places data
in the request-URI is not allowed.
Field values are not limited to being simple text strings but can be any arbitrarily complex, but well-formed, XML structure. The following data set contains an XML encoded digital business card  together with other data items, all of which possibly originate from an online form:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?> <xm:map xmlns:xm="http://www.ietf.org/XML/NS/map" xmlns:vc="http://www.ietf.org/XML/NS/vCard"> <item name="vcard"> <vc:vCard version="3.0"> <fn>Joe Bloggs</fn> <n><family>Bloggs</family><given>Joe</given></n> <tel>+1-22-333-4444</tel> <email>email@example.com</email> </vc:vCard> </item> <item name="notify">yes</item> <item name="org-type">Software Development</item> <item name="heard-of">From a friend.</item> </xm:map>
When a map associates a name with a value which is itself an XML element this element may be typed by giving it an XML namespace attribute. The vCard namespace identifier used in this example is fictional - none is currently specified. Namespaces are more suitable as a typing mechanism than DTDs or formal public identifiers as they were designed to apply to individual elements of a larger XML document, not necessarily to the document as a whole.
The encoding schemes discussed above are provided primarily
for simplicity and backwards compatibility with HTML forms. The
"native" XForms method of constructing form values is
the much more general idea of using formsheets. A formsheet specifies
how to transform the source document into a form value. It is
denoted by the
formsheet attribute which is a URL.
form-lang attribute specifies the MIME type of
the formsheet language and can be omitted when it can be inferred
from the context, e.g. from an HTTP
The major advantage of formsheets is that they allow us to
construct the form value as being any sort of XML document.
This means it becomes possible to submit typed data rather
than using "stupid", generic encodings of form values.
The typing mechanism used is that of MIME and XML namespaces.
Form data is assigned a namespace identifier by the generating
formsheet and the MIME type is given in the
Figure 1 illustrates how formsheets would typically be used in Web applications.
The client retrieves an XML document from a Web server and has it rendered using a stylesheet. The document contains a number of form input elements whose values changes in response to user input. When the form is submitted the formsheet executes on the "current value" of the source document. This results in a "data" XML document which is then submitted to the server.
In the situation where a stylesheet has been applied to the original document in order to construct a renderable XML flow-object tree (as is the case for XSL stylesheets), the formsheet operates on the formatting object tree rather than the original tree. This is so because form controls wouldn't necessarily be present in the original document, but would often be added by the XSL tree transformation step. This is not an issue with stylesheet languages such as CSS which doesn't have transformational capabilites.
The following example illustrates form value construction and submission behaviour for forms with formsheets expressed in XSL. XSL consists of two parts: a general-purpose transformation language which is used to map an XML source document into an XML target document, and a formatting vocabularyitself an XML languagewhich is used to visually render a document. We use the transformation part to transform a document containing an XForm into the data document. The elements of the source document that contributes to the form data document are, by definition, the forms set of controls.
Suppose a server wishes to prompt a client for a user ID and a password. It can do this by using an HTML like form:
<form xf:form="scoped" action="/cgi-bin/logon" method="post" enctype="text/x-userid" formsheet="userid.xfl" form-lang="text/xsl"> User ID: <input type="text" name="userid"/><br/> Password: <input type="text" name="passwd"/><br/> <button xf:form="submit"> </form>
Suppose we want to generate form data sets of the form
<user> <id>aladdin</id> <password>open sesame</password> </user>
The "userid.xfl" XSL formsheet could then be defined as follows (boldface text is passed through to the output uninterpreted by the XSL transformation engine):
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/TR/WD-xsl"> <xsl:template match="/"> <user> <id> <xsl:value-of expr="/form/input[attribute(name)='userid']/attribute(value)"/> </id> <password> <xsl:value-of expr="/form/input[attribute(name)='passwd']/attribute(value)"/> </password> </user> </xsl:template> </xsl:stylesheet>
This XSL formsheet consists of a single template rule whose
pattern matches the form element of the source document. The result
is the contents of the template element with the
elements substituted for the current values of the userid
input fields. The form value
is submitted with an HTTP
Content-Type header of
text/x-userid. The XML form data may have a namespace
identifier associated with it, although in this case it doesn't.
If for whatever reason we wanted the form value to be encoded as
<user id="aladdin" password="open sesame"/>
doing so would be a simple matter of changing the
formsheet. No changes are needed for the document itself.
When, as in this example, the form is declared to be
the formsheet executes on the form element only, i.e. for the
purpose of computing the form value this element is the document
root. In contrast forms declared
on the whole document. This reflects the requirement that
forms contain all its constituent controls.
As is the case for stylesheets formsheets will typically be
held as complete resources separate from the XML data they are
applied to, but may also be embedded directly in documents. Embedded
formsheets would have an
ID attribute and would be
referenced from form elements using '#' fragment identifiers in
Using formsheets to control the encoding of form values has some significant benefits over the simple name-value data sets of HTML.
With HTML based Web applications servers send data to clients in HTML pages which contain both semantic and presentational markup. Clients passes form data to servers either as URL-encoded strings in the request URI or in the body of HTTP requests or as a MIME encoded multipart. With XML and XSL it is now possible for the server to send XML encoded data to the client without any presentational markup. XForms allows us to use the same data encoding to be used in the other directionfrom client to server. What's more the data is typed using MIME media types and XML namespace information. A client can edit a database table record by record and have data shipped in identical formats in both directions.
Being able to pass data around using a single (semantic) encoding is not just a theoretical nicety, it means that we don't have to rely on special-purpose server-side processing in the form of CGI programs to make sense of the data. Standard components can make sense of it a priori. This makes it easier to string together applications (Web based or otherwise) as the data is self-describing. In a sense it helps dissolve the client-server distinction as content can flow in both directions using identical representations.
Formsheets operate on the source XML document and can construct arbitrary data sets. The generality of formsheets means that it is possible (and even straightforward) to construct a formsheet that performs the task of encoding the value of a form using the XForm-map encoding. In other words, the formsheet mechanism has the appealing property of having this other form data set encoding as a special case and the XForm-map representation can be formally defined as a specific XSL formsheet.
The power of formsheets doesn't come for free. Writing XSL transformation scripts is not trivial and it is not realistic to expect everyone to master it. The definition of form elements in a specific XML language might therefore choose to define the formsheet to have some default or fixed value.
As in HTML a constructed form value is submitted to the processing
agent using the protocol defined by the
action attribute is the same as the
attribute in XLink and is the URI of the server side resource
to which the form value gets submitted.
It is desirable to support some sort of typed data entry, i.e. to be able to specify certain types of constraints on data to be entered into forms. This would have at least two applications: it would allow user agents (UA) to check the validity of data entered before submitting it to a server, thus providing immediate feedback and generating less network traffic, and secondly it would potentially enable the UA to fill in known values automatically. A good example of this, as anyone who has spent much time on the Web will testify to, is name and address information prompted for by many Web sites as part of a registration procedure. Rather than having to repeatedly type in this information it would be convenient if browsers stored it and simply filled in the right form fields with this information as the default value, without ever submitting anything without explicit consent, of course, and only for form controls without a default value of their own. This is maybe particularly useful for information which is not easily entered via a keyboard, such as base64 encoded digital signatures or images; vCards, for example, optionally carries photos.
These two applications may require different kinds of typing mechanism. The former is much like types found in programming languages (strings, integers, booleans, etc.). Checking conformance to such datatypes could be done using scripting languages in conjunction with forms but relying on procedural verification for a problem that essentially calls for a declarative approach is not very elegant. Also it doesn't allow UAs to use specialized user interfaces for types such as dates.
The approach taken in XForm is to use the datatypes specified
in the Document Content Description framework for denoting "basic"
datatypes . The DCD also allows constraints
like maximum and minimum values to be specified. The following
is an example of an input field using the DCD
attribute (short for datatype) for requesting an integer
value between 0 and 100:
<input name="interest" DCD:dt="int" DCD:min="0" DCD:max="100" />
The other applicationfilling in default values for frequently
used datamust in some way deal with application semantics.
Again we use namespaces, but now rather than referring to datatypes
defined by a single XML language we need to be able to refer to
elements of any language. We define an XForm
attribute for this purpose. The value of this attribute consists
of a namespace identifier followed by the name of an element in
the corresponding XML language.
So to continue the example of a server soliciting contact information from a UA, we note that digital business card information is addressed by the vCard specification which has defined an XML encoding . A form requesting individual elements of a vCard structure might look like:
<h:html xmlns:h="http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40" xmlns:xf="http://www.w3.org/TR/XForm" xmlns:vc="http://www.ietf.org/Schemas/XML/vCard"> <body> <form xf:form="scoped" action="/cgi-bin/vCard" method="post"> <input name="firstname" xf:dt="vc:given"/> <input name="lastname" xf:dt="vc:family"/> <input name="tel" xf:dt="vc:tel" vc:tel.type="WORK"/> ... </form> </body> </h:html>
while a form prompting for an entire vCard might look like this:
<form xf:form="scoped" action="/cgi-bin/payment" method="post"> <input name="person" xf:dt="vc:vCard"/> <input name="credit-card" type="text"/> <input name="exp-mnth" DCD:dt="int" min="1" max="12"> <input name="exp-year" DCD:dt="int" min="1998" max="2010"> ... </form>
The former example is fairly simple to deal with for a UA as
the specified datatypes, i.e. the
tel vCard elements, are defined to contain flat
textual data only, i.e. they cannot have child elements of their
own. This means that a UA which "knows about" vCards
and is configured with vCard information for its user can initialize
those form fields with the appropriate values, while UAs which
doesn't know about vCards will just ignore the
datatype specifications and thus degrade gracefully to their usual
untyped behaviour. Note that the form author may include further
attributes from the target datatype namespace. An example of this
vc:tel.type attribute in the example. Within
tel element of a vCard the
attribute further qualifies the content of that element. The UA
may wish to take notice of such extra information but the semantics
of these attributes are, of course, determined by the target datatype,
not the XForm specification.
In the case where the form is requesting a complete vCard or any other element with its own internal structure, there is no simple way to degrade service gracefully in case the UA doesn't know the specified type, and "knowing" the type may involve writing custom code to handle the user-interface for forms requesting those datatypes anyway, and so is more work. One idea would be to use the namespace identifier of unknown datatypes to attempt to retrieve a DTD or a DCD which could then be interpreted to construct a UI which would allow editing complex structures of that type. Another idea would be to define alternative input elements for UAs which does not support a particular datatype (in the style of the HTML NOFRAME element for use by UAs not supporting frames). Neither of these ideas seem very attractive and it may be better to rule out the use of structured datatypes, at least initially.
The generality of formsheets means we have a lot of flexibility in how form values are constructed. In particular it is possible to reconstruct the original document completely or partially. This has some interesting and maybe surprising applications. One such application area is workflow-like messaging systems. Consider the following scenario.
Jack composes a memo and wants to send it to a number of people in turn. Each recipient gets to read it, add comments, and forward it to the next person in the chain. This can be accomplished using XForms in an XML document representing the memo. The memo has some text (plain or marked up) representing the actual message content. In addition it has a list of recipient names and email addresses and a list of comments made so far together with the names of the persons making them. Figure 2 shows the XML encoded memo as it might look by the time it reaches Joe.
<?xml version="1.0"?> <?xml:stylesheet type="text/xsl" href="http://example.com/workflow/memo.xsl"?> <memo xmlns="http://example.com/workflow/memo.dtd"> <head> <title>My Beautiful Memo</title> <author>Jack</author> <recipients> <to>firstname.lastname@example.org</to> <to current="true">email@example.com</to> <to>firstname.lastname@example.org</to> <to>email@example.com</to> </recipients> </head> <body>This is the body of the text. This is what the recipients will see in turn and have a chance to add their comments to. A comment in this example is some unformatted text along with an identification of who made the comment.</body> <comments> <comment by="firstname.lastname@example.org">This is really good, Jack!</comment> </comments> </memo>
Joe's user agent will render the memo according to the stylesheet
referenced in the document. It will display the
to elements along with the
body and existing comments, and will add a form element at the
bottom of the page where Joe can add his own comments. The
attribute of the form element contains a mailto URL which
is the email address of the next recipient (Ann in this case).
The formsheet associated with the form reconstructs the original
structure shown in Figure 2, only now marked with a new "current"
recipient and with an additional
Form submission in this case means emailing the memo to the next
recipient in the list. As jack is himself the last recipient the
memo will end up with him.
This example can be extended in a variety of ways. For example, the document could be an acquisition form retrieved from a Web server with a bunch of information to be filled out and a link for submitting it. When the submit link is traversed the document is send to a list of managers in turn for them to add comments and their (authenticated) sign-off. When the last signature has been added the request goes to the purchasing department and from there to an online order tracking system. In this example the formsheet may change underway, i.e. at some point the formsheet used to transition to the next step generates a document which will contain a form which uses a different formsheet.
All this can be achieved using just standard XML technologies: XML, XLink, XSL, and XForm together with standard transports such as HTTP and email. The construction of the formsheets that accomplishes it is not trivial but not hopelessly complicated either. Luckily it is not something everyone would have to do. Standard communication patterns like the ones above can be codified once and for all, but it's worth noting that as long as user agents implement the standard XML technologies listed above they will be able to take part in any new "communication pattern" of this sort that anyone can come up with.
Earlier sections have already discussed some of the differences between HTML forms and XForms, the most important ones being the "computability" and typing of XForm values. Here are some more.
Alinks to act as forms, a stylesheet language defining a tabbed pane element could submit an XForm data value when the user changed pane etc.
The following DTD approximates an XForm compliant definition of HTML forms. The parameter entities are defined in the HTML specification and some details (like scripting related attributes) have been left out for simplicity.
<!ELEMENT FORM (%block;)+> <!ATTLIST FORM xf:form CDATA #FIXED "scoped" xml:link CDATA #FIXED "simple" action %URI; #REQUIRED method (GET|POST) GET enctype CDATA "application/x-www-form-urlencoded"
formsheet CDATA #IMPLIED
form-lang CDATA #IMPLIED
charset CDATA #IMPLIED
result-ns CDATA #IMPLIEDadditional XLink atributes > <!ELEMENT INPUT EMPTY> <!ATTLIST INPUT xf:attributes CDATA #FIXED "form type" type %InputType; #CDATA name CDATA #IMPLIED value CDATA #IMPLIED >
This definition largely allows backwards compatibility with HTML4.0 while allowing the use of formsheets and XForm-map encoded form values.
A number of companies offer products in the area of digital, networked forms processing, but to our knowledge only one proposal exists for a standardized XML form language for use on the Web: the Extensible Forms Description Language .
The approach taken in XFDL is very different from that of XForms. XFDL is an XML application and defines a fixed set of form elements, structural markup, GUI display elements, and scripting capabilities all within the same language. The emphasis seems to be on defining a markup language (form controls and other markup) which allows for the construction of visually pleasing on-line forms and which is powerful enough to faithfully reproduce their paper-based equivalents. Additionally XFDL adds scripting functionality (for checking form values on clients) through it's own scripting language. It doesn't seem to address form value construction or typing.
In contrast the approach taken in designing XForms was to define forms processing separate from other pieces of the XML puzzle such as stylesheets, linking and scripting and make it as modular and generic as possible. XForms and XFDL operates at different levels of abstraction, and it would be possible to define an XForm compliant XML form language using the XFDL form controls and standard XML stylesheet and scripting support.
This paper has presented XFormsa proposal for what forms could be taken to mean in XML. The proposal is a radical rethinking of HTML forms and generalizes those, while ensuring the possibility of defining a "wellformed" HTML DTD which is XForm compliant. The main contributions of this paper are the idea of using "formsheets" to compute form values, the proposal for how to specify typed input fields, and the definition of a forms framework for XML which dissociates intrinsic properties of Web forms from any specific markup language and in particular from any specific set of form controls. This broadens the scope of XForms and makes the basic mechanisms applicable to input devices other than keyboards and mice.
Designing protocols to be modular and single-function has been a very successful design principle on the Internet. XForms is intended to address fundamental aspects of XML based forms processing and to fit in well with other XML technologies such as XML itself, XML namespaces, XSL, XLink, action sheets, and scripting languages.
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Kristensen is a member of the research staff at Hewlett-Packard
Laboratories in Bristol, U.K. His interests includes an array
of WWW and Internet technologies, distributed systems, object-orientation,
software development, design patterns, and framework design. Anders
holds an M.Sc. degree in computer science and a B.Sc. in mathematics
from Aarhus University, Denmark. Home page: http://www-uk.hpl.hp.com/people/ak/.