Re: Giving up on XML

Subject: Re: Giving up on XML
From: eric -dot- dunn -at- ca -dot- transport -dot- bombardier -dot- com
To: "Bob Doyle" <bobdoyle -at- skybuilders -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 20 Mar 2007 07:43:59 -0500

Hmm. Yet another combination of myth and half truth.

"Bob Doyle" <bobdoyle -at- skybuilders -dot- com> wrote on 03/16/2007 04:33:59 PM:
> XML is a very general markup language. Like SGML (standard
> generalized markup language), it needs a list of the allowable
> content elements against which a document is "validated.".

> This is the DTD (document type definition), also called the content
> model - a list of allowable elements, what order they can be in, how
> many are allowed of each, etc. It's like the EDD (element definition
> document) of Framemaker, which (unfortunately) also includes the
> styles information. Modern good practice is to separate presentation
> from content.

That's a perfect description. While I wouldn't necessarily be as harsh as
that with regards to the EDD.
Regardless of the tool or approach, at some point the relationship between
structure and presentation (incorporating the specific rendering tools
capabilities) has to merge. Seeing as the DTD part of the EDD is only one
line per element, it's a nice reference while editing the EDD for
formatting rules.

>
> To produce output, XML uses XSLT (a stylesheet and transformation
> language - and a procedural programming language written in XML itself).
>
> So XML has three levels, the allowed structure and content model
> (DTD, the content itself (XML), and the presentation styles (XSLT).
> HTML mixes all three together. Framemaker mixes content model and
styles.

Well, I'd disagree that HTML mixes them all together. The HTML DTD is
separate. And if the HTML uses CSS then the presentation is separated as
well.

> A bit of history.
>
> XML was standardized in 1996 -a kind of cross between HTML and SGML.

No. There is no relation between HTML and XML.

> Over 10 years earlier, SGML was the latest version of GML. It's best
> known tool is DocBook, which was designed for book format documentation.


Well, Docbook is ONE SGML (and now XML) implementation. But, as far as
"best known" would be dependant on what industry you work in. ATA, CALS,
and others are probably far more widely used than Docbook.

As for the history, read: http://www.oasis-open.org/docbook/intro.shtml. I
wish people would pay more attention to the phrase:"It was developed
primarily for the purpose of holding the results of troff conversion of
UNIX documentation, so that the files could be interchanged ". Not to work
in, but to use to interchange content.

> IBM used SGML and DocBook for their documentation. Then they used
> XML and DocBook.
>
> Then they realized that technical documentation should no longer be
> in book format!
>
> Rather it should be written in reusable chunks.
>
> The idea of chunking technical documentation goes back to the 1960's
> and Information Mapping (http://www.infomap.com). Information
> Mapping recognized many Information Blocks (chunks), Information
> Maps (arrangements of blocks), and Information Types.

I wouldn't give IM that much benefit. Others have done it before and
since. They just didn't TM it and charge a fortune for classes.

> IBM and many other organizations invested many man years and
> millions of dollars creating DTDs to use with XML. But the
> generality and eXtensibility proved way to flexible. It was very
> difficult to get agreement on DTDs.

Because sets of information can be VERY different. The reason it's
difficult to get agreement and wide use of a DTD is the same as the
difficulty in designing one single database. Too specific, it can't be
used by others. Too general, it can't track required information.

And excuse my bluntness, but the statement "eXtensibility proved way to
flexible" is ludicrous. IBM most certainly didn't have an internal
extensibility problem. You design supporting infrastructure around a DTD
and the DTD is designed around the data and requirements. It's not as if
every user can then go and modify them.

If you are to accept the described strengths of DITA, one of the biggest
is being able to design your own DTDs to create your own DITA topics.

> The genius of DITA is that created one basic DTD (actually a small
> set) and also a set of XSLTs. They implemented all their tech docs in
them.

DITA is just another approach. I wouldn't classify it as genius. Whether
the DTD meets your needs or not is something you have to validate.

> They gave them to you and to me, so we would not have to hassle with
> our own DTDs.

But if you aren't producing IBM documentation, you will likely be doing
your organisation a disservice if you didn't learn to adapt the DTDs and
scripts to your specific needs.

> Many of the concerns of techwhirlers expressed in this thread about
> Giving Up on XML were experienced by IBM years ago.

But they were addressed in a way that satisfied IBM. That's not to say it
might not be perfect out-of-the-box for your needs.

> They are way past those concerns and so should we be.

No. Every writer should always be concerned that their information is
being captured, stored, and presented in the best manner possible.

As the last is an advert for a service that will eventually require
payment, I would question the glowing enthusiasm for one solution as the
one-size-fits-all panacea.

I'd also wonder if writers who can't set-up the DITA implementations in
commercial software or get the open tool kit functioning won't have
difficulty grasping other basic changes in thinking required by working in
a DITA environment.

Eric L. Dunn
Senior Technical Writer

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Re: Giving up on XML: From: Bob Doyle

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