A Look at Lightweight DITA

Alan Houser, Group Wellesley, Inc.

DITA is a proven architecture that has helped organizations to transform how they create, manage, and deliver content to support their customers and strengthen their business.

But DITA remains challenging for many organizations. Even for DITA adopters, aspects of content workflows remain challenging:

  • How to empower content contributors, who may be subject-matter experts who have no interest in learning DITA or working with DITA-aware tools.
  • How to aggregate content from a variety of content contributors into a DITA workflow.

With these issues in mind, the OASIS DITA Technical Committee has been developing a new form of DITA—named Lightweight DITA. Lightweight DITA is a simplified version of DITA; fully compatible with DITA 1.3, and offering a greatly simplified authoring experience.

Lightweight DITA offers:

  • A simplified entry point to structured, topic-oriented authoring.
  • Appropriate semantics and features for content workflows that do not require the full set of DITA markup and features.
  • A choice of authoring formats (XML, HTML5, and Markdown) appropriate for different preferences, all providing equivalent capabilities.

Alternatives to XML Authoring

Like it or not, XML authoring workflows are not universally adopted or accepted. For any number of reasons, many organizations and individuals are reluctant to work in XML. You’ve probably seen this in your own organization. Developers generally prefer to work in Markdown. Marketing staff may prefer to work in HTML5. These preferences present a barrier to content contributors outside technical publishing departments. Telling content contributors “you must learn DITA” or “you must use this specialized tool” is often a non-starter.

Choice of Authoring Formats

To empower the greatest variety of content contributors, Lightweight DITA offers three authoring formats: XML (XDITA), HTML5 (HDITA), and Markdown (MDITA).

All three are native authoring formats — content management systems and authoring tools should maintain Lightweight DITA content in its original authored format. Authors are free to develop and maintain content in whatever format is most comfortable and convenient.

Organizations are not locked in to any single Lightweight DITA authoring format. Authors can work in the format of their preference. For publishing, Lightweight DITA maps can aggregate topics authored in all three formats.

Design of Lightweight DITA

The Lightweight DITA feature set was carefully defined, based on use cases from content contributors throughout an organization, that need to create structured, topic-oriented content with some level of semantics and metadata support. To this end, Lightweight DITA provides:

  • Structured topics, in three authoring formats
  • Aggregation of topics through maps, also in three authoring formats
  • Cross-referencing and linking
  • Content referencing of block content
  • Variable inline content
  • Metadata-based filtering
  • Embedding of arbitrary metadata

Specialization of Lightweight DITA is currently possible for the XDITA, but is not explicitly encouraged. (Specialization is not currently defined for the MDITA and HDITA flavors of Lightweight DITA). Organizations that need greater flexibility or capabilities should use full DITA.

Multimedia and Lightweight DITA

DITA adopters have long requested better support for embedding multimedia content in DITA topics. Lightweight DITA includes new multimedia components, inspired by HTML5, that support embedding of audio and video objects in published content.

For adopters of full DITA, these components will also be available for DITA 1.3 users in a multimedia domain, to be released by the OASIS DITA Technical Committee.

Mixing and Matching

Aligning with the goal of source-format equivalence, Lightweight DITA maps can aggregate topics in all three authoring formats.

Full DITA maps can also aggregate Lightweight DITA topics, when using a DITA processor that supports Lightweight DITA. Examples of these processors include DITA Open Toolkit version 3.0 and later, and XMLmind DITA Converter. And, because XDITA is fully compatible with DITA 1.3, full DITA maps can always reference XDITA topics.

Current Adoption and Tools Support

While the formal Lightweight DITA specification is in progress, the OASIS DITA Technical Committee has published a Committee Note that documents the motivation, use cases, and design of Lightweight DITA. Early adopters and tools vendors can use the Committee Note for guidance in deploying and supporting Lightweight DITA.

The current level of interest, adoption, and tools support for Lightweight DITA is encouraging. IBM Cloud documentation had previously migrated to a Markdown-based workflow, and was one of the inspirations for Lightweight DITA. Adobe has also adopted Lightweight DITA-based workflow for some public-facing content, and supports Lightweight DITA in its Adobe Experience Manager (AEM) enterprise content management system.

Is Lightweight DITA for You?

Lightweight DITA addresses the requirements and preferences of organizations that want to empower the greatest number of content contributors, while retaining a structured topic-oriented authoring environment that provides many DITA features and capabilities. If you are considering new ways to empower your content contributors, or don’t need the capabilities of full DITA, consider Lightweight DITA.

Special thanks to Carlos Evia for his contributions to this article, and to Michael Priestley for his original vision of Lightweight DITA.

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