JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

For the past several weeks, we have been reviewing the latest releases of Justsystems’ XMetal Editor and PTC’s Arbortext Editor. Both vendors have made significant improvements to the usability and functionality of their products. XMetal has an impressive WYSIWYG-like interface that makes text entry easy. Arbortext has released its DITA–compatible Styler that helps in creating style sheets for PDF and HTML output. Both products have significant support for setting up DITA maps with easy-to-use functionality supporting conditional processing. Although I personally prefer to use the tags-on view when I’m writing, writers who prefer a more Word-like interface can select that convenient mode of operation. If others in your organization prefer something even more Word-like, you might implement Elkera or If you prefer to stay in the FrameMaker environment, you can take advantage of the DITA plug-in for this desktop publishing tool.

The adoption of desktop publishing gained ground as the tools improved. In the 1980s, desktop publishing was expensive, usually requiring that we buy an entire computer system to get a text editor. As the tools became available for standard desktop operating systems and the quality of the interfaces improved, technical communicators became excited at the possibility of controlling their own output and adding typesetting quality to their work.

Authoring Help systems, at least for Microsoft-based systems, originally required that you compose footnotes in Word. Only when vendors began to produce usable tools like Doc-to-Help and RoboHelp, did the development of context-sensitive Help move from the tool geeks to professional information developers.

The same move from tools-oriented specialists to the rest of us accompanied the entrance of HTML authoring for websites. We no longer have to code in HTML to get reasonably attractive and functional information deliverables for the Web.

As the tools have improved, so has the acceptance of new technologies to add to our kit bag of information design and delivery. As the tools have improved, information designers and writers are less and less dependent on tools specialists to get the work out the door.

I believe the same transition is even now happening with XML-based authoring and DITA. In the past year, I have seen a marked increase in the interest in and adoption of the DITA standard. DITA requires, of course, that you produce documents in XML with semantic markup that identifies content units by the information they contain rather than their formatting. When we first embarked on SGML or XML authoring, we had to type the tags. No longer. The new editing tools make text entry simple. However, semantic markup still requires thought, thought about the content we are producing. I believe that thought process is a significant benefit to DITA markup rather than a detriment because it makes writers more thoughtful about the content they are developing.

Not only are the authoring vendors providing us with products that make XML authoring straightforward, if thoughtful, the content management system (CMS) vendors are also facilitating DITA acceptance. The vendors who have developed systems that support the management of XML components have been especially active in supporting DITA in their products. I find that Astoria, Vasont, TriSoft, XyEnterprise, SiberLogic, and IXIASOFT include support for DITA topics, content references (conrefs), DITA maps, and conditional publishing within their CMSs. They also support publishing DITA topics through the DITA Open Toolkit. However, the Open Toolkit is hidden behind user-friendly interfaces to produce PDF, HTML, and various help systems. Usually, the CMSs include either the Antenna House or the RenderX publishing tools, which provide plug-ins to support more sophisticated output in PDF.

With the growing collection of tools designed specifically to support DITA, I find the standard has already moved beyond the early-adopter environment where we began in 2003. As we see with any technology gain, new tools are first accepted by innovators and early adopters who see the potential for productivity gains from the start. The early majority customers adopt the new tools only when the effort to implement them has declined to an acceptable level—one that is not too disruptive to the accustomed development practices. DITA is now at that early majority stage, as we see from the number of organizations, large and small already adopting the model or seriously considering doing so in 2007.

Then, here is my New Year’s prediction for 2007. We will see the OASIS DITA standard move into the mainstream of technical communication development and publishing. DITA provides us with the security of an international standard, supported by a committee of dedicated professionals intent on improving the model. It provides us with an environment focused on topic-based authoring and fostering a reuse model that supports cost effectiveness. It supports both topic- and book-based publishing, especially with the support of the new bookmap due out with the 1.1 DITA release in early 2007. It provides a discipline for authoring that has been sorely needed by the field, and it helps further the professional status of technical communicators worldwide.

As one of the DITA innovators and early adopters, I’m happy to see DITA move out of the realm of the tools specialists and into the hands of the information architects, designers, and authors where it belongs.