Inspired Tools

Jun 13, 2006

June 2006 Issue

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One of the great things about technical journalism is getting to talk to the people who are making the tools of tomorrow and thus changing the way we work. It's also an opportunity to take the tools out for a spin. In this issue, I do my first comparative review of content-creation software XML Author and Developer tools.

There is no technology more important to content management than XML and its large family of related protocols. XML promises to deliver structured authoring and an easy way to reuse pieces of the structured content. It also promises to repurpose that content for presentation in a wide range of publishing formats, not to mention in all the world's languages.

Unfortunately, it is taking some time for the word to get out; the people behind XML have been saying this since the W3C adopted the recommended standard for XML ten years ago. An Adobe executive in 1996 said, "The XML standard will make searching, reusing, and exchanging electronic content much easier, enabling businesses to implement more efficient electronic commerce, content management, and mission-critical publishing solutions." The CEO of Arbortext said, "Arbortext strongly believes in XML's potential as the standard for structured information delivery over the Web." CNET's director of software engineering said, "CNET is extremely excited about the potential of XML both as a single format for publishing and as an extensible language for the aggregation and exchange of content."

Wait, there's more. The birth year of XML, 1996, marked the tenth anniversary of another technology that promised to structure our content for searching, reusing, and repurposing—SGML, the Standard Generalized Markup Language. "There is no point in storing anything unless you can find it again, in its most useful component elements, ready to be repurposed. There is a danger in allowing your most valuable asset—the 90% of your information that is in documents—to be locked away in proprietary, unmanaged, unmanageable electronic formats. Luckily, SGML provides an internationally standardized, vendor-supported, multipurpose, independent way of doing business. If you aren't using it today, you will be next year."

These are the words of one of the truly great technology visionaries of the twentieth century, Yuri Rubinsky, whose life was cut tragically short just as XML made its appearance a decade ago. Rubinsky founded SoftQuad International more than 20 years ago and oversaw development of the first structured editing tool, SGML Author/Editor, as well as the very popular HoTMetaL editor for HTML, forerunner of today's XMetaL. So it was a pleasure for me to meet some of Rubinsky's coworkers, who are still working toward his vision.

All of this structured-content preaching has inspired me to infuse XML into what I practice. I founded a community of content management practitioners called CM Professionals and am the de facto Webmaster of our site. One of our great stated objectives is to document Best Practices for Content Management; what could be a better practice than reporting our research in a structured, topic-oriented format—based on XML, of course?

The CM Pros site mostly consists of CSS + HTML pages, but now it includes two demonstration pages written in XML according to an XML Schema Document (XSD), then published with an XSLT transformation. One of them is structured according to the new DITA standard for technical documentation. The DITA document is processed to HTML using the free DITA Open Toolkit. The DITA page proposes we use a structured reporting technique called Design Patterns, which aims to assemble groups of patterns into a pattern library to serve as models. The other XML page is a draft report on Best Practices for Controlled Vocabularies.

The basic format of each page consists of sections with titles and descriptions that are excellent candidates for reuse on all the Best Practices. This helps simplify translations, which is important because another XML objective for the CM Pros site is translating navigation into many languages using TMX, an XML localization standard. CM Pros now has chapters in many countries where English is at best a second language. Opening a CM Pros Japanese Community of Practice recently in Tokyo gave me a chance to learn a bit of Japanese, and with the help of our members there we are writing the Web site navigation in double-byte Unicode to support Asian languages.

In the last few months, I've read a few thousand pages of documentation to learn FrameMaker, the stalwart publishing tool of the technical communication community, and seven other pure XML Author and Developer tools. I hope some of the excitement of XML publishing and the people behind it will shine through in the mere few thousand words I have in this issue of EContent to tell you about it, and I hope to see you in XML next year.