Re: Programming Languages for Technical Communication

Subject: Re: Programming Languages for Technical Communication
From: Mark Baker <mbaker -at- OMNIMARK -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 17 Feb 1998 14:47:10 -0500

Laurel Nelson wrote:

>Mark: Would you elaborate more on which programming languages (besides
>Java) tech writers should learn (and in which order)? Are you speaking for
>writers who are involved in online Help and Web site development? Thanks in
>advance for any information you provide.

First we need to distinguish two types of applications that writers will
need to create or be involved in creating: content management applications
and content delivery applications.

Content management applications manage the relationship between the editable
and the consumable form of information. Most of those we use today (word
processors, etc.) are media specific. (For more on content management see my
white paper at

The amount of discussion on the list recently about single sourcing
information for different media illustrates that media specific authoring
tools are no longer adequate. Most of what has been suggested for single
sourcing so far concentrates on formatting or content reduction for online.
This leads to a books-on-glass approach to online information products,
which fails to exploits the strengths (or remediate the weaknesses) of the
on-line media.

On-line media differ from paper not simply in readability or formatting.
Different media have different behavioral characteristics. To design well
for any one media, you must design for the particular behavioral
characteristics of that media. If you want to single source (and
economically you don't have much choice) you need to author information in a
form which is media independent not simply at the format level but at the
behavioral level. This is a new concept for writers, but not a new concept.
This is what database systems have done for years.

Your next authoring tool is going to be a database. So, the first thing you
should learn is relational database design. The best place to start is
probably Microsoft Access, but any relational database will do.

Next you need a language for representing the structure of descriptive text.
XML or SGML will do.

Next you need a language that can deal with both your database and your XML.
That (he says, paying the rent) is OmniMark. There are other languages that
can perform these functions, but OmniMark was designed for content
management and generally provides an order of magnitude improvement in
development time and maintainability over general purpose languages.

For content delivery applications there are any number of languages and
toolkits available. You can look at anything from Authorware to WinHelp. For
general UI programming Visual Basic is as good a place as any to start.

But, and it is a big but, the real content delivery application increasingly
is not the software delivered to the customer, but the software residing on
your server. The information product is not the web page, but the web site,
not the client side Java applet, but the server side application that
generates individualized content on the fly, drawing on two or three
databases to supply the necessary information.

For this server side function there are also many products, from low end
like Active Server Pages, mid range like Story Server and Web Objects to
high end, which is OmniMark again.

Whatever kind of information programming you are going to get into, such
programming always relies on structured information, so you need to learn
that first before getting into specific programming languages. That means
databases and markup languages. With that in mind I might suggest the
following curriculum:

Access (relation database design)
Visual Basic
Mark Baker
Manager, Corporate Communications
OmniMark Technologies Corporation
1400 Blair Place
Gloucester, Ontario
Canada, K1J 9B8
Phone: 613-745-4242
Fax: 613-745-5560
Email mbaker -at- omnimark -dot- com

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