Those who regularly visit the Web site of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) have seen hints about the next version of HTML, codenamed Cougar. Last week, the W3C updated and consolidated those scattered hints by releasing them in a public draft of HTML 4.0. This release is important because it codifies a wide array of tempting new features. Many of these features will work only in new browsers, and Microsoft has already announced plans to support them in Internet Explorer 4.0.
Forms gain many improvements in HTML 4.0. Publishers can assign keyboard shortcuts to form elements and set a tab-order for form elements such that users can press Tab to move among them. Forms can have generic buttons that publishers program with scripts, and forms can utilize a new item that prompts for a file name to be uploaded. Publishers can also set elements to be disabled until they are appropriate (for example, a Submit button might be disabled until a form's mandatory elements were completely filled out, a feature that will likely be welcomed by every Web user on the planet).
Other highlights of the draft include a new script element for adding client-side scripts; grouped columns and rows in tables which make for faster perceived presentation of a table, plus sections of a table that can scroll within a fixed header and footer; and a new character set, ISO-10646, which is a character-by-character equivalent to Unicode 2.0. (Unicode contains 38,885 characters which come from 25 different scripts, including Arabic, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Katakana, Thai, and Tibetan.)
I recommend that Web publishers take time to read the actual draft, which strikes me as more reader-friendly than much of the W3C's previous Web publications.