JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director
www.infomanagementcenter.com

It might be too early to ask the key question: Is DITA going to tip? After all, DITA became an OASIS standard early in 2005. Before that, it was a glimmer inside IBM. Some four years ago, DITA began to be evangelized by Dave Schell, myself, and a few others. But when I invited Dave to speak at the 2001 Best Practices conference and included his brief vignette about DITA in my 2002 Content Management book, the most common response was “DITA who?”

How do I see the response to DITA just a few years later? Can we meaningfully even ask the question about DITA tipping?

At the 2003 Best Practices conference, we addressed the question: Why did SGML fail to “tip”? We had all been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller, The Tipping Point, so the question was a natural. Mark Baker, leading the discussion, pointed out that SGML appeared on the technical publications scene about the same time as desktop publishing in the mid-80s. He suggested that SGML failed to tip because of competition from desktop publishing, which did tip.

Desktop publishing tipped, as CIDM members argued, because it addressed a strong need among technical communicators to produce attractive, readable print content. I recall being excited about the possibility of producing typeset copy without the costs associated with professional typesetting. It brought typesetting within our reach for the first time and freed us from ugly typewriter fonts and the time-consuming process of paste-up.

SGML, on the other hand, was adopted by only a few major corporations in specific industries. Because of the high cost of entry, only automotive, aerospace, semi-conductor, or telecommunications giants were able to move their information development into SGML. In the 80s, for us to produce SGML content and output to high-quality laser printers required a mainframe computer.

Desktop publishing, unlike SGML, was convenient, reasonably inexpensive, fun to work with, and satisfied the creative inclinations of a generation of information developers. The Apple Macintosh provided the first entry point for most of us, and even that was fun to use.

Although the developers of XML editing tools are working hard to improve the usability of their user interfaces, XML is certainly not as much fun as desktop publishing for the individual contributor. It has none of the cachet of FrameMaker in making a final deliverable look attractive and readable. XML certainly will not tip in the same way that desktop publishing tipped.

Obviously, something else must influence XML authoring if it is to move past the tipping point. That “something else” is arguably DITA. DITA represents an enormous advantage to the information-development community. For the first time, it provides us with an information architecture standard around topic-based authoring that is unique to technical information. It takes us out of the world as defined by book publishers, which has provided us with a basically flawed paradigm for 50 years or more. It gives us a unique identity by pushing us toward semantic markup that enhances the quality of our text. It gives us a context with which to support our need for efficiency, consistency, and effective branding of our content for practiced, action-minded consumers of information. It’s just what technical information developers need to build a unique opportunity for recognition and increased credibility in our otherwise product-oriented world.

Gladwell describes “tipping” as the mysterious process that turns something into an epidemic of popularity and acceptance: “The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point.”

According to Gladwell, three agents influence moving something past the tipping point: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. The Law of the Few states that a very small number of people are enough to begin an epidemic of change, as long as those people have an out-of-the-ordinary influence on others. The Stickiness Factor suggests that that an epidemic for a new idea is affected by a memorable message, one that does not go in one ear and out the other. The Power of Context says that the environment in which change occurs, much like its social context, influences our acceptance of the new idea.

Each of these agents appears to be operating in the introduction of DITA to the technical information-development community. Gladwell expands upon the Law of the Few by arguing that an idea tips under the influence of three critical components: connectors, mavens, and salesmen. Connectors are people who seem to know everyone, and they seem to know the key people who will spread the new idea. They turn the “six degrees of separation” concept into “one degree.” They effectively spread the word through their enormous network of contacts, helping to make them all aware that something new is happening. Do we have Connectors helping to expand the reach of DITA? Some people have suggested that I’m one of the key Connectors myself.

Mavens are trusted experts. If they believe something is a good idea, everyone else feels more confident about supporting the idea. Mavens are great teachers; their mission is to educate and help. Dave Schell has been playing the Maven role for DITA since its beginning.

Salesmen have the uncanny ability to sell even the most recalcitrant doubters. Their persuasive skills help to push the new idea from just an idea into an explosive epidemic. I think of several people in the product-development community like Jerry Silver at Blast Radius and Miel De Schepper at Trisoft who are consummate salesmen for the DITA idea.

Do we have the right complement of connectors, mavens, and salesmen to take DITA over the top?

In the past few months, we’ve witnessed a ground swell of interest. We’ve seen three or four local user groups form, in part with support from IBM and other experts. We introduced a DITA track at the 2005 CM Strategies conference that was received with great enthusiasm by more than half of the 200 attendees. We held a one-day DITA Europe conference at the beginning of November. At STC’s conference in May, the DITA sessions were all well attended. A number of DITA events are planned for 2006, including the CM Strategies conference in San Francisco and a local DITA conference in North Carolina. I was invited to talk about DITA to the STC France chapter and led a DITA panel at the Zurich conference of the Localization Industry Standards Association (LISA). We are planning a DITA session at the LISA/CIDM Conference in Shanghai.

Tools vendors have already made significant investments in supporting DITA. Antenna House, Astoria Software, AuthorIT, Blast Radius, FrameMaker, Idiom, IXIASOFT, PTC (Arbortext), SiberLogic, Trisoft, Vasont, XyEnterprise, and others have announced their products’ support for the DITA standard.

On the other hand, the number of companies that have fully implemented DITA is still small. Most of those are large companies with lots of resources to apply to a new way of thinking about technical information. IBM, of course, has already produced hundreds of volumes of content and hundreds of thousands of help topics using DITA. Nokia, Engenio Information Technologies, Information Builders, BMC, and others are in early stages of their own implementations, and many more technical publications organizations are investigating the possibilities. France Baril at IXIASOFT is my favorite example of a successful but tiny shop that has fully implemented DITA in French and English.

But it takes more than a few to reach the tipping point, and I don’t think we’re there yet. It’s still a grass roots effort and some of the big influences like Gartner, Delphi, or Seybold still haven’t heard of us. Nonetheless, we seem to be heading in the right direction. The danger is that we keep talking to one another rather than evangelizing to a broader community.