XForms class 14-15 February 2011, Rockville, Maryland

[5 January 2011; typo corrected 24 Jan 2011]

Black Mesa Technologies has scheduled a two-day hands-on class on the basics of XForms, to be taught 14-15 February 2011 in Rockville, Maryland, in the training facility of Mulberry Technologies (to whom thanks for the hospitality).

The course will cover the XForms processing model, the treatment of simple values and the creation of simple structures, repetitions of the same element, sequences of heterogeneous elements, and techniques for using XForms for complex forms, dynamic interfaces, and multilingual interfaces. It’s based on the one-and-a-half day course given last November at the TEI Members Meeting in Zadar, Croatia, which (judging by the participants’ evaluations) was a success.

XForms have great potential for individuals, projects, and organizations using XML seriously: XForms is based on the model / view / controller idiom, and the model in question is represented by a set of XML documents. That means that you can use XForms to create specialized editing interfaces for XML documents, which exploit the styling and interface capabilities of the host language (typically XHTML) and can also exploit your knowledge of your own data and requirements.

Some people have built more or less general-purpose XML editors for specific vocabularies using XForms. That works, I think, more or less, though in many cases I think you’ll get better results acquiring a good XML editor and learning to use it. XForms really shines, I think, in the creation of ad hoc special-purpose editors for the performance of specialized tasks.

In many projects, XML documents are created and refined in multiple specialized passes. In a historical documentary edition, the document will be transcribed, then proofread and corrected in multiple passes performed by different people, or pairs of people. Another pass over the document will mark places where annotations are needed and note the information needed to write those annotations. (“Who is this person mentioned here? Need a short biographical note.”) And so on.

In a language corpus, an automated process may have attempted to mark sentence boundaries, and a human reviewer may be assigned to correct them; the only things that reviewer is supposed to do are open the document, split all of the s elements where the software missed a sentence boundary, join adjacent s elements wherever the software was wrong in thinking it had found a sentence boundary, save the document, and quit. If you undertake this task in a full XML editor, and you get bored and lose concentration, there is essentially no limit to the amount of damage you could accidentally do to the data by mistake. What is needed for situations like this is what Henry Thompson of the University of Edinburgh calls ‘padded-cell editors’ — editors in which you cannot do all that much damage, precisely because they are not full-featured general-purpose editors. Because they allow the user to do only a few things, padded-cell editors can have simpler user interfaces and be easier to learn than general-purpose editors.

The construction of padded-cell editors has always been a complicated and expensive task; it’s going to take thousands, or tens of thousands, of lines of Java or Objective C or Python to build one, even if you have a reasonably good library to use. With XForms, the high-level abstractions and the declarative nature of the specification make it possible to do roughly the same work with much less code: a few hundred lines of XHTML, CSS, and XForms-specific markup.

This is why I think XForms has a place in the toolkit of any project or organization making serious use of XML. And, coincidentally, it may be a reason you, dear reader, or someone you know may want to attend this XForms course.

(Oh, yes, one more thing: we have set up an email announcement list for people who want to receive email notification of this and other courses organized or taught by Black Mesa Technologies; a sign-up page is available.)