The Future of the DITA Standard

Reprint from STC’s Intercom, November 2008

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

When the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) standard was released in 2004, with its foundation in the work done at IBM, the company released its DITA work to the open-source standards community. This resulted in the 1.0 DITA Specification and the DITA Open Toolkit, which supports the publications of PDF, HTML, help, Eclipse, and other outputs from a source of DITA topics.

In August 2007, the OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) community, through the work of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee for the formal specification of DITA, approved the 1.1 specifi cation. As Don Day of IBM, the Technical Committee chair, noted, “More organizations are turning to DITA as a way to jump start their use and reuse of structured content—and reduce costs in the process. The enhancements we’ve made in version 1.1 are a direct result of input from a user community that is experiencing tremendous growth.”

Versions 1.1 and 1.2

At the release of the 1.1 specifi cation, the work of the DITA Technical Committee provided for “enhanced print publishing capabilities with new DITA Bookmap specialization, including extended book metadata. The standard offers more indexing capabilities with new elements for ‘see’ and ‘see-also’ references. It features new elements for defi ning structured metadata as well as the ability to add new metadata attributes through specialization.”

The OASIS DITA Technical Committee (TC) has been hard at work through 2008 on the 1.2 specification. The TC expects to issue the 1.2 specifi cation at the end of 2008 or early 2009, once it has been approved by a majority of the OASIS standards community. At present, the changes to the specification have been approved by the TC members, including STC’s primary representative, Dr. JoAnn Hackos. The new capabilities are being tested in draft versions of the Open Toolkit as the new version of the specifications is being edited.

The 1.2 specification includes several additions to the DITA standard, including a Learning and Training specialization, a Machine-industry specialization, new support for glossary entries and acronyms and abbreviations, and the ability to constrain the standard DITA information types. These features should prove especially advantageous to STC members.

For technical communicators who need to use a sequence of steps in multiple tasks, DITA 1.2 introduces the ability to reference range of elements rather than one at a time. With the new “conref push” mechanism, communicators will be able to permit designated customers to insert specifi c content into the source text. For example, a telecommunications equipment company providing a manual to a phone-service carrier can enable the carrier to insert brand-related terminology or other content into the text upon processing.

Although these additions are only a small part of the improvements represented in the 1.2 specification, they offer advances that have been actively encouraged by the technical communication community. Three subcommittees are currently working on capabilities needed to support content development in the semiconductor industry, Help system development that includes linking to software applications, and content to support general business applications across the enterprise. These specializations should be expected in the 1.3 specification.

Learning and Training Content Specialization

The Learning and Training subcommittee, under the able direction of John Hunt of IBM, has been determined to support the collaboration between technical publications and training organizations. The core of the Learning and Training specialization are the three primary DITA topic types: content, task, and reference. The subcommittee members concluded that the content requirements for training materials are essentially the same as those for technical publications: Both need to educate users in performing tasks and understanding concepts and facts. With the core information types in both environments, training and technical communication professionals can easily develop content that is applicable to either and essentially shareable.

Surrounding the core content, the subcommittee introduced to the specialization the unique content types required by instructional designers and training. These include a comprehensive learning plan, a learning overview that includes learning objectives, a learning summary, a learning assessment that allows the instructor to create multiple-choice tests, true/false tests, and more.

Instructional designers will be able to use the new learning topics to create learning modules. They will be able to share content with technical communicators. For example, if technical communicators have already written step-by-step procedures for completing required tasks with a product, the procedures can be incorporated into training tutorials with the addition of sample data.

Machine-Industry Content Specialization

The Machine Industry subcommittee has been dedicated to improving the support offered by the DITA standard for hardware-oriented installation, operations, and maintenance manuals. Committee members from around the world reviewed the ISO and European Union requirements for safety-hazard statements and incorporated them into new XML elements to support danger, warning, and caution statements. With these additions, the DITA 1.2 standard will comply with the ANSI Z535 and ISO 3864-2 standards for hazard statements.

The Machine Industry subcommittee has also developed a task specialization that expands the prerequisite element that is already part of the DITA task. Writers who develop maintenance tasks will benefit from a more elaborate set of prerequisite elements for tools, spare parts, and time and skill requirements. The new task, which will be part of the DITA 1.2 standard, will support the development of hardware service manuals.

Glossary and Acronym Support

The Translation subcommittee members asked the DITA TC to consider better support for acronyms and glossary terms. With 1.2, a term in a print publication can be introduced and replaced, then replaced automatically with an acronym. In online content, the acronym can be supported by a mouse-over with the expansion.

The Translation subcommittee was especially concerned with the need to translate acronyms when the expanded term is different in target languages. Although some technical acronyms, like JPG, may remain the same across translation, other terms have equivalent expressions in other languages and result in different acronyms or no acronyms at all. As a result, subcommittee members provided multiple XML acronym elements to account for language differences.

The glossary design for the 1.2 specification includes the ability to manage terms for a translation terminology base in addition to listing terms and definitions.

Constraint Mechanism

Many organizations that have adopted DITA want a process to constrain the choices available to a writer so that best practices and company style guides are better enforced. The constraint mechanism that will be introduced in DITA 1.2 allows a DITA adopter to limit the writer’s options without creating complicated DITA specializations.

Using a constraint, a DITA adopter can remove an optional element or require an optional element. For example, if a technical publications team wants everyone to include a short description immediately following a topic title, the constraint mechanism can require the short description. A constraint can also be used to remove or require an optional metadata attribute. For example, if your team requires that the writers set the product attribute for each piece of conditional text, you can use the constraint mechanism to enforce the policy.

Best Practice Documents

The DITA Translation Subcommittee has been particularly active in developing a series of best practices documents. The Subcommittee has released three best practice documents, all available through The three best practices for translation are Translation Best Practice for Leveraging Translation Memory, Best Practice for Indexing DITA Topics for Translation, and Best Practice for Using the DITA CONREF Attribute for Translation.

The DITA Help Subcommittee is developing a Best Practice document to guide the implementation of contextsensitive and embedded help using the DITA model. Using DITA to create Help content is supported by the standard but requires customizations either developed in-house or available through vendors. This committee is at work on recommendations for additions to the 1.3 DITA specification that will make it easier to produce context-sensitive help.

DITA Adoption Technical Committee

The DITA Adoption Technical Committee, whose purpose is to promote the adoption of the OASIS DITA standard worldwide, was formed in July 2008. According to the committee’s charter:

“The OASIS DITA Adoption Technical Committee members will collaborate to provide expertise and resources to educate the marketplace on the value of the DITA OASIS standard. By raising awareness of the benefits offered by DITA, the DITA Adoption Technical Committee expects the demand for, and availability of, DITA conforming products and services to increase, resulting in a greater choice of tools and platforms and an expanded DITA community of DITA users, suppliers, and consultants.”

To join OASIS or to fi nd information about the activities of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee, the OASIS DITA Adoption Technical Committee, and the various subcommittees, visit www.oasisopen. org. The Adoption committee’s public page is tc_home.php?wg_abbrev=dita-adoption. In addition, the OASIS DITA community provides a rich source of information about the standard at the DITA Focus Area,

Dr. JoAnn Hackos, (joann.hackos@comtech-serv. com) is president of Comtech Services, Inc. and director of the Center for Information-Development Management. She is the chair of the OASIS DITA Adoption Technical Committee and the DITA Translation Subcommittee, as well as secretary of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee. She is also a former STC President.