Wednesday, March 14, 2007

XML Tools - less expensive, more abundant and easier to use, I hope

You know, eleven years ago I didn't even know a person could be a technical writer. I had no idea the possibility of performing the best part of every job I had ever had was rolled up in a single career. Since then I have had the opportunity to design, code, create or write many of the types of document known to technical writers. What a blast.

Now, for me, the tides are turning. Single-sourcing is looking like the best fit available for many of my clients. At first I looked at my newest client's documentation with the eyes of an MS purest, how can I write all these manuals and still keep the costs down. They have a 400 page user manual and 5 vertical market manuals that need to be created. The software required help files specific to the market, a training video, and web-based FAQs. I couldn't justify the cost involved in writing all this information in a linear fashion. The only way I could see to produce all these documents, keep the costs down and keep the quality was to reduce the amount of information that had to be written. XML and single-sourcing is where I'm looking to handle the load.

XML (extensible markup language) started as subset to SGML. HTML another very small subset of SGML was not meant to handle formatting and SGML is just too large and complicated for the average non-programming writer. When the buzz about XML started showing up on technical writing listserves and in an STC publication I started to get excited about working with it. I could immediately see the usefulness of single-sourcing, and since I was already maintaining a help system written in SGML the code seemed so elegant to me. Many people praised the ease of use when maintaining a documentation system that had been designed in XML, but as Jim Shaeffer posted to the TechWR-L list, Wednesday March 14, 11:17am, "[Early evangelists] skipped [telling us] all the messy part about writing our own programs or researching esoteric tool chains to get what we wanted."

The tools available to small companies 7 years ago where either too expensive, too complicated, or non-existent. One open-source tool, DocBook, provides DTD and Schema's for XML reducing the amount of coding required to build a system, but small companies where not willing to put out the money to implement a system from the ground up.

So I have tried to use as many of the principles of single sourcing and content managment that a company using only MS Word, without version control, could tolerate. This was a difficult effort.

Now, options seem to be opening up all over the place. Tools are not only becoming less expensive, they are also becoming more functional, with interfaces that are intuitive enough to jump right in. There is also an abundance of applications to choose from. What I need to know more about is where does the Content Management System (CMS) system come in and the XML authoring begin, do you need both and which types go together. In an article "Selecting a Content Management System" [Bob Doyle - Intercom, March 2007, p.9], Mr. Doyle estimates the number of "unique CMSs is now somewhere over 2,000 worldwide". With that kind of variety there is bound to be competition and competition begets choice.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in two product demonstrations and I liked them both. The first was an XML content management system (CMS) XDoc™ from Bluestream Corp running with XMetal as its editor and the second was a help authoring tool called Flare™ from Madcap Software. The GUIs for both these products were so familiar I could have probably faked my way through a project and ended up with something of value.

They both allow for various publications formats (doc, PDF, HTML, help) and they both allow for security and document ownership. XDoc is better used for entire documentation systems, including marketing documents, internal specifications and procedures as well as end-user documents. XDoc is not an authoring tool but it does integrate easily with many of the most common tools. XDoc provide solutions in technical publications, content management, web content management and E-Learning.

Flare on the other hand is a help authoring tool that can generate help files, printed documents, or a PDF via MS word or FrameMaker.

I am still evaluating the costs and benefits for my clients as well as potential alternatives. All I am sure of at this point is that every new client is a new learning experience. What a great job I have!

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