Getting Started with DITA

Feb 06, 2007

You may get what you pay for, but getting started with structured content creation using the new DITA XML standard has recently gotten a lot less expensive.

In my review of XML Editors last year, I found that almost every software vendor offered a 30-day trial of their tool. The only vendor who didn't do so decided they had better start offering a trial version so as not to be embarrassed by the EContent review.

But 30 days is not enough time to learn DITA and some clever people just apply for another 30-day trial when their first demo period expires. This may make sense to those testing out the top-of-the-line XML editors whose price per seat is in the $1,000 neighborhood. But for those with a modest budget who are just getting started, there are some XML editors you can use for lengthy periods that are very low cost, even free.

I recently downloaded XMLmind, a desktop XML editor that I did not include in my roundup. Pixware offers a free unlimited download of the Standard Edition of their XXE (XML Mind XML Editor). Since it is Java-based, it has the cross-platform advantage of running on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

XMLmind has been integrated into some new XML Content Management Systems, like XDocs from Bluestream. Most XML CMS integrate all the top editors and XDocs is no exception, supporting Altova XML Spy, Justsystems XMetaL, SyncroSOFT , and Syntext Serna, in addition to XMLmind.

Bluestream also supports browser-based editing with DITA Storm, a lightweight Javascript application that downloads into your web browser, allowing you to create and edit DITA documents and then upload them to a remote server.

Obviously DITA Storm does not have the power of the desktop applications. But it could be what you need to create your first documents in DITA and it might fit your requirements. You would need a server with the DITA Open Toolkit running to process your documents to XHTML for the web and PDF from print.

I have helped organize a Boston DITA Users Group and we have been looking at strategies for content creators just getting started with DITA. We initially planned a workshop to install the DITA Open Toolkit on member laptops, but were surprised with the lack of interest.

Typical writers do not want to get involved in the technical back end of things. They just want to create structured content. They expect that their IT department will install all the necessary applications when the time comes.

But there's the rub: Writing teams can't decide on DITA until they know enough to justify the investment and make the business case to management. And they can't learn enough without a better learning environment. So we decided to put up a website where members could edit a few DITA documents with their own content. They can not only learn DITA but make a demonstration for their management.

The creators of DITA Storm gave us permission to offer browser-based editing to members for free. The DITA Open Toolkit itself is open source and free, so we run it on the server for the new website at Members can also use a desktop editor to create content and upload it for processing to XHTML and PDF files. The standard edition of XML Mind is what we'll recommend since it's free.

Hosting an educational toolset makes a lot of sense. Members don't have to install anything and all the maintenance is done for them. The future looks to have more and more software running as web applications.

In fact you can now move all your structured content creation to the web. DocZone is a hosted XML CMS specializing in DITA. They offer desktop editing with the leading XML Editors and are now emphasizing web-based editing with Xopus, recently enhanced to support DITA.

Interest in DITA is growing rapidly with several DITA conferences each year in North America and Europe. Kay Ethier's DITA 2007 conference is meeting today in San Diego and JoAnn Hackos' conference on Content Management Strategies and DITA meets in Boston next month.

I just finished reading Hackos' new version of her 1994 classic Managing Your Documentation Projects, now titled Information Development and updated to include DITA. I also recommend Introduction to DITA by Jennifer Linton and Kylene Bruski, published by Hackos' Comtech Services group.

Reading books and attending these conferences can get you a long way into DITA, but not everyone can attend. Yet everyone needs extended experience with creating their own structured content before they can make that business case. Vendors could help more. We want to encourage them to extend their XML Editor trial periods and maybe even offer "sandboxes" on their own servers so potential buyers can get a lengthy hands-on content-creation experience.

If they do, we can tell EContent readers about the opportunity and we can post access information on gateway websites like the OASIS DITA XML Focus area and the new DITA Users site. The more we help users get their hands on DITA tools, the more DITA will help content users.