Follow-up: Printing with HTML and CSS

Subject: Follow-up: Printing with HTML and CSS
From: Jimmy Breck-McKye <jb527 -at- hotmail -dot- co -dot- uk>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Thu, 18 Aug 2011 23:18:03 +0100

Firstly, thanks to all who responded to such a nebulous and open-ended question.

Listening to the feedback on this list, and speaking to some colleagues, the consensus seems to be:

1. Whilst CSS isn't *bad* at setting out printed materials, it isn't sufficiently powerful for major jobs.

2. I'll probably have to work with wikis and CMSs that take most print control away from me anyway,


3. Whilst it's great to get to know XML and XSLT well, in practice, my proposed methods would involve reinventing a lot of wheels. Whilst building my own XSLT toolchain might be great training experience, for practical purposes I'd be better using existing XML toolsets like Docbook and DITA (as Richard Hamilton suggested)

It was interesting to read John Allred's account of the unfortunate legacy of SGML's demise. Like him, my perception as a newcomer to the field is of a wide array of confused, half-functional applications. One of the reasons I thought about a pure XML toolchain the first place is because all the other tools I've seen leave me thoroughly underwhelmed. Framemaker seems far too much hassle for what I want to actually do. LaTeX offers great flexibility but power that I'll never need. There's some interesting open source XML tools out there, like Syntext, but they feel unfinished.

As for the way forward, Prince XML sounds interesting (and anything simpler than FO is always a good thing). I'm tempted to stick with XML because we do indeed re-use a lot of information (we roll out lots of *slightly* different iterations of our product), and because the devs are keen on integrating XML docs into the application's embedded help.

Thanks for the insights.

> Date: Sun, 14 Aug 2011 20:55:40 -0500
> From: jack -at- allrednet -dot- com
> To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
> Subject: Re: Publishing / typesetting print documentation in HTML + CSS (+JS)
> At some point, someone here is going to slap my wrist for posting
> things just a little too far off the topic and just a little too long.
> I think Richard covered the question you asked pretty well, Jimmy. So,
> I would hope, there is some slack for stretching out on this particular
> topic. The only thing I would add to Richard's response is that even
> CSS 3.0 is a poor tool for producing text truly intended for a print
> format. For your desktop printer, or for other informal documents, it's
> fine. But for any structured document--book, magazine, newsletter, user
> documentation--where layout of the page is critical, there are precious
> few controls for crafting a well-laid out document. Try kerning text or
> wrapping text around an irregularly-shaped object using HTML/CSS. Try
> creating dynamic, running headers or footers.
> Conversations here have spasmed over the different ways to try to
> handle the nesting of numbered bullets. It's far easier to take a
> document developed for print and port it to HTML. For PDF output, it's
> as simple as hitting the Print button. Your page layout or--god
> forbid--word processing app has taken care of the formatting to a
> particular paper size already. The idea of going the other way, except
> for churning out queries of raw data and producing a PDF on the fly
> from the web server, baffles me. It's useful to remember that,
> nowadays, the vast majority of content has no real structure and can be
> presented sloppily and informally, and no one will much care. So
> porting a web page to print is probably no longer a concern except to a
> few craftsmen.
> Jimmy, what you're asking about takes me back some 25-30 years. Way
> back, before the World Wide Web and HTML, and before Desktop
> Publishing, even, there was an esoteric language known as SGML, which
> stands for Standard Generalized Markup Language. While SGML is still an
> integral part of the WWW family of languages, its inception was in
> printing. I never used it directly, but I was aware of it soon after my
> entry into DTP with Ventura Publisher's version 2. SGML was developed
> for newspapers, magazines and books. But, it contributed strongly to
> what we now know as XML. eXtensible Markup Language. Kinda has a ring
> to it.
> When Ventura Publisher (VP) was originally developed at Xerox PARC, it
> made use of this language under the hood, but it didn't give the user
> direct access to it. Because of this power of structure, Ventura
> Publisher became the king of PC-based publishing. It had incredible
> power to control every nuance of page layout using definable rules,
> which it, and every other application since has called Tags. Nothing on
> the Mac ever rivaled its power in the first decade or so. VP survived
> several owners, including Corel, until its final release in 2002 as
> Version 10. Many awful, but popular, packages, like Aldus PageMaker
> and QuarkXpress, required expensive add-on "extensions" in order to
> address the needs of structured text. In spite of having these add-ons
> available, they didn't do structure well.
> VP made attempts through its middle years, as did many other DTP
> packages, to export DTP content to multiple platforms, using a single
> source document. Remember, for my rant later, that this is what we're
> talking about in this thread. The implementations of this, including
> VP's, were poor, partly due to the Wild West state of HTML in those
> days. With Microsoft ignoring nearly everything the W3C proposed as
> standards, pulling a usable set of rules together for everybody was all
> but impossible. The worst implementation, also IMNSHO, was Microsoft
> Word writing a unique CSS class for every jot and squiggle on a page.
> Fine for displaying in other MS apps, if uncontrollable document bloat
> is no issue for you. Useless for any other purpose, though. Microsoft
> has never played nice with anybody else and probably never will.
> I know there are new applications that incorporate some of this ability
> to repurpose content to different platforms. In my mind, though, we
> missed a golden moment more than 20 years ago. That was a time when the
> raw, naked profit motive pushed progress backward rather than forward.
> I'm not sure we'll ever fully recover that opportunity for a
> standards-based world of publishing. With Microsoft finally starting to
> behave itself in IE version 9.x, there's hope, at least, for the Web.
> Consider yourselves lucky. I could give you more snotty opinions about
> all the bad boys in DTP and the Web than you have time to read.
> Microsoft almost succeeded in killing the promise of the web, too, but
> has finally lost that fight to the momentum of intelligence and
> imagination. Not that they wanted, really, to kill the web. They just
> want to own it, lock, stock, and barrel. I take comfort in knowing that
> Microsoft's attempts at document publishing and web publishing, both,
> suffered ignominious deaths.
> * The article at [1]
> leaves out much important detail, particularly about how SGML
> influenced the development of Ventura Publisher, which inspired the
> DTP industry, despite Aldus PageMaker's claim to that distinction.
> * [2] Mac people
> believe, and would try to convince you, that Apple invented the
> GUI, DTP, and all the other things we love about computers today.
> In fact, Xerox PARC did the inventing. There was a furious exchange
> of contracts, ideas, cooperation and lawsuits among PARC, Microsoft
> and Apple over all of this. PARC, which also developed Ventura
> Publisher, invented all this stuff. Apple got to the market with it
> first, that's all.
> * [3] (Published 1998)
> <END OF RANT SUMMARY> Mostly, I've been singing the praises of a now
> defunct piece of software and a few companies that had a vision for the
> world of publishing, no matter the particular implementation--paper,
> web, PDA, multimedia, etc. Because of greed and stupidity, we now face
> the same problems we had 25 years ago, only now we have hundreds of
> different software applications, each trying to tear off a tiny piece
> of a huge, confused market. The chance to unify this field with
> kick-ass software and make your job as a technical writer one,
> primarily, of writing, without regard to technical niceties of
> presentation, are long gone. Thank you Microsoft and Adobe. Sorry I
> didn't buy some stock in your sorry companies years ago. At least I
> could have profited from your short-sightedness.</END Of RANT SUMMARY>
> ~john allred
> On 8/14/2011 6:37 PM, Richard L Hamilton wrote:
> Jimmy, little be
> Looking again at your message, I would suggest that you look closely at what's a
> vailable with the DocBook and DITA schemas. You will find that a lot of the work
> you may be thinking of doing has already been implemented for these two schemas
> . Both have active communities that support toolkits that will get you from XML
> to html, print, ebooks, and various help formats, and both toolkits allow you to
> customize output in a variety of ways.
> You can get from HTML to print, but it's not the easiest way to go in my experie
> nce. The only times I've done a book from HTML, I converted the HTML to DocBook
> XML and used that toolchain, rather than CSS. There are folks who can do magic w
> ith CSS and who would probably disagree with me, but if you're starting with XML
> , rather than HTML, I would do what I suggested in my previous message and go di
> rectly with whatever toolkit exists for the schema you choose.
> Good Luck,
> Richard Hamilton
> -------
> XML Press
> XML for Technical Communicators
> [4]
> [5]hamilton -at- xmlpress -dot- net

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