Life in a TEXTAREA

I stole the title of this entry from Adam Rifkin's eponymous post back in January. Here's part of his rant:

Web forms have not evolved in fifteen years -- there's still so few text editing features that I find myself manually searching and replacing sometimes. There aren't many activities more useless than eyeballing a <TEXTAREA> looking for text sequences when I know this is what computers were friggin' invented to do. Worse, I find that sometimes I hit the wrong key and move off the browser page and all the typing I've done gets completely wiped out. [Adam Rifkin: Life in a TEXTAREA]
Indeed. For the longest time, I've envisioned a new HTML rich-edit tag backed by a standard control. It would work like Microsoft's DHTML Edit Control, but would be implemented natively in the browser. It was already ridiculous not to have such a thing years ago. Now, with oceanic quantities of text pouring through the TEXTAREAs of blogging tools and webmail applications, the situation is just insane.

It's true that there have been some righteous JavaScript workarounds. The spellcheck feature of GMail was a real eye-opener. In a comment attached to Adam Rifkin's posting, I found this interesting Greasemonkey script which saves and restores text typed into forms. (Actually this is a neat idea that could be extended to other flavors of form data too.) But JavaScript shouldn't be laying the foundation for a rich editor, it should be building upon one.

Maybe it's not too late. If the WHATWG's CANVAS element can sneak in under the radar in Safari, Mozilla, and Opera, perhaps it will set a precedent that a rich edit control can follow.

Such an effort would dovetail neatly with a couple of related initiatives. One is the rejuvenated Netscape plugin API, which aims to make plugins more scriptable. You'd need that in order to be able to swap out the native control for heavier writing tools.

Another initiative, although admittedly you have to squint hard to see it, is toward a more capable local database for the browser. I had a glimpse of it last year, when BEA's Alchemy -- a lightweight XML cache -- made its brief appearance. I'd love to see that project, or something like it, come to fruition.

I can clearly envision a rich edit control that thinks in XML, styles with CSS, extends with JavaScript, and saves through a local (and E4X-enabled) cache to the Web. Can I summon the Lazyweb and wish it into existence? Probably not, but it never hurts to try.

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