Frames to be sorted
Wilbert Kraan, CETIS staff
August 08, 2002

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has released a first public working draft spec for XFrames, an XML replacement for HTML 4.x frameset. It is primarily designed to address the useability issues that many developers and users associate with HTML frames.

Framesets are widely used as devices to separate content from navigation in virtual learning environments (VLEs). It works, but not perfectly: framesets are hard to bookmark, users get trapped in framesets by following links to the wider web and hitting 'reload', 'back', 'page up' and 'page down' can give unexpected results. Also, because few people make use of the NOFRAMES tag, browsers that don't support frames (e.g. search engine spiders and screen readers) get in trouble. This means that documents that are intended as parts of framesets often end up orphaned when found by search engines, for example. To top it all off, the fact that the origins of individual frames in a set are not obvious to the user can lead to security issues.

The new draft spec intends to address these shortcomings by including references to the frames that make up a frameset in its URI. Essentially, frames with content need to be given an id and a source for that id in the URI. For a frameset with three frames, that could look like this:,b=two.xhtml,c=three.xhtml)

If the id for one of these frames is not given in the URI, either the frame remains empty, or a default that is coded in the frameset document is loaded. If you click on a link inside a frame, the link target gets associated to the frame, and the whole set reloads. Consequently, a bookmark would always point to the same set of frames.

Other improvements include greater flexibility in the way frames are represented. The default is tabs, but the spec directly supports the familiar rows and columns structure. Using CSS, almost any other representation structure can be specified, including movable windows and the like.

Since XFrames is a W3C first public draft, it is unlikely that these goodies will show up in a VLE any time soon. Once the spec will be fully hashed out and supported by the popular browsers, however, it should give VLE developers a good tool to improve useability.

Go to the W3C XFrames working draft for more details.