It was a great year for XForms at XML 2007. There were quite a number of presentations that featured XForms as a component, though in this blog I want to focus on the big event for XForms, which of course was the "XForms Everywhere" special session held on Monday evening.
It is no exaggeration to say it was an unqualified success. This was a 2-hour event consisting of six 15 minute presentations by some of the XForms community leaders, including Mark Birbeck, John Boyer (yours truly), Erik Bruchez, Dan McCreary, Keith Wells, and Charles Wiecha. This was followed by a 30 minute keynote from Elliotte Rusty Harold on "How XForms can Win". You can find program details here.
Naturally, we were a bit concerned that the evening slot (7:30-9:30) would test the stamina of the even most eager conference-goers, but the room was filled to capacity (about 60 chairs) and then there wasn't even standing room due to about 20 people standing or sitting at the back of the room.
And then the content was exquisite. The format of the session turned out to be a great idea. With only 15 minutes, each of us was required to refine our content to the cream of the cream. The order of speakers was defined by Leigh Klotz (Xerox) based on the most natural flow of thought about forms design, run-time case studies, general application architectures, and futures. Since I was talking about design, I went first. This created a happy coincidence because it made the most sense to start by announcing the most recent accomplishment the Forms Working Group, which is the transition to Candidate Recommendation of XForms 1.1. Not only did my own design-time presentation depend upon XForms 1.1, but also most of the other presenters used XForms 1.1 features as well.
With such a huge turnout, it occurred to me that quite a large fraction of people might not know much of what XForms is capable of. I started thinking back to the Compound Documents workshop of 2004 where Bert Bos, the chair of the CSS working group, said "Forms, I know what forms are. Name, address, pepperoni, extra cheese. I want to talk about more sophisticated web applications. The kind that can play games. Not necessarily Doom, but you know what I mean." When my turn came to talk at that conference, I started by launching my BlackJack form, and I played a few hands. Lady Luck was with me that day, and she was with me again on the XForms evening at XML 2007. I showed that form for effect, but then I showed a much more sophisticated "Mortgage Pre-approval Form" in both English and Chinese. Next I showed how much of the complexity of that form could be seen as simple aggregation of the concepts one can find in a reasonably small purchase order form. And at last, I launched into a 7 minute demonstration the XForms design experience for that purchase order form. You can see a video clip of that design experience here.
I enjoyed the presentations by Dan McCreary and Keith Wells because they demonstrated sophisticated applications of XForms that would be an order of magnitude harder to build with existing web application technology. During the breaks between speakers, I took the time to reiterate to the audience the business value here in terms of being able to win deals based on lower RFP bids.
I also enjoyed the two more forward-looking presentations by Mark Birbeck and Charlie Wiecha. Mark demonstrated and spoke about his experiences building a desktop application development environment called Sidewinder, which combines XForms and XHTML to allow very efficient creation of desktop applications, not just web applications. Charlie demonstrated and spoke about the applicability of the XForms architecture to creating robust mash-up applications out of components that actually are reusable.
Perhaps my overall favorite talk of the evening was given by Erik Bruchez. You can find out more about it here. Erik presented yet another application with high business value and low development effort that he created by combining XForms with the eXist database. The main point of his overall presentation was to illustrate that the XForms-based web application architecture consists of a rich client tier that can speak directly to server tier applications like databases with no coding in the middle tier. Clearly given my blog entry of Oct. 18, I couldn't agree more.
Whenever I explain that the XForms architecture is "rich client", I always stop to remind the reader that this is a mindset, not a deployment strategy. You can deploy an XForms rich client, or you can deploy XForms functionality to a thin client (a web browser only) using a server product such as the Lotus Forms Webform Server. The point is that the XForms mindset allows you to factor out the deployment issue and focus on what the application is supposed to do.
And as an IBMer, I am duty bound to my colleagues over in Information Management to point out that the database involved in the above mentioned example could instead be the scalable and robust DB2 9.x with pureXML support. Using a package like Lotus Forms that supports the XForms 1.1 submission enhancements for web services and REST-like services, forms applications can directly consume web services set up by the database adminstrator without the need to bring in a java developer to write the code in the middle. This is an important point that I'll return to very shortly in the conclusion.
The final presentation was the keynote by Elliotte Rusty Harold, who is a gifted speaker and thinker. He began by explaining how hard it has been over the past 15 years to make do with today's web architecture for building web apps. He was more eloquent at saying this, but it's a bit like trying to incrementally build a 15 storey building on the foundation for a single family dwelling. Of course, the point was that XForms can do the job that today's web just can't, and it can do it really well, but... As Elliotte explains it, XForms is currently a "Cambridge" technology built by really smart people, and that it needs to build the bridge to New Jersey where all the fast-and-cheap, quick-and-dirty... and successful... technologies live.
This is a fancy way of saying that while XForms is now hardened for the most demanding of enterprise applications, more focus is needed on making XForms more accessible to the much wider audience of people who perhaps start out with simpler problems that work their way up into being the complicated beasts that become those unmaintainable piles of jumble-fuss (my word; Elliotte would've come up with a better one) that cause so much trouble today.
XForms can win, Elliotte says, if three things happen. First, native support in the browser. Second, good design tools. Third, XForms needs a killer app.
Regarding browser support, he points out that it is well-known that IE will be hard, but that we should start out by getting the Firefox/Mozilla XForms plugin to be moved to the core browser, and not an 'additional' plugin anymore. To some extent, I agree, but in the spirit of New Jersey thinking, XForms can already run in all browsers because we have server-side products that can boil it down to the HTML and AJAX that all browsers, including IE, natively understand. Elliotte felt that was a bit of a hack, but we have to remember that he's also a professor, so he sometimes also falls into the Cambridge trap. Still, the point is well-taken, as long as we view things in terms of transition. The server products show that XForms is a viable technology for all browsers even if you don't want to deploy rich clients. A great next step, of course, to garner direct browser support, and we're working on it, but it's not impeding our ability to provide the business value of XForms to customers today.
Finally, there's Elliotte's point about needing a killer app. Let me start with a Cambridge thought: XForms doesn't need a killer app because XForms is the killer app. The first killer app of computing was the word processor; the second was the spreadsheet. In a conversation I had with Elliotte the next day, he commented that the spreadsheet was even more of a killer app because it had to move the coder out of the way in order to put the computing power in the hands of the people. Sound familiar? XForms is the killer app of Web 2.0. The New Jersey reality check is that it has to walk like a killer app and quack like a killer app in order to be a killer app. The spreadsheet only became the killer app once the people saw what they could do with it and how to do it. The 'what' and the 'how', that's what made the XForms + database presentation and the design tool presentation so important in our XForms special session at XML 2007. The call-to-arms is simple: make more what, make more how, ... make XForms Everywhere.