Re: XML & Technical Writers...(not too long!)

Subject: Re: XML & Technical Writers...(not too long!)
From: Deborah Ray <debray -at- RAYCOMM -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 15 Apr 1998 12:26:45 -0600

From Mark's posting:
>There have been standard DTDs for documentation for years: SGML DTDs. Most
>major industries have them. Few companies actually use them. But remember
>that a DTD defines a language. HTML has an SGML DTD, but we don't say
>someone is using SGML when they author in HTML. If we did create a single
>DTD for documentation, it would define a specific language (let's call it
>TDML for Technical Documentation Markup Language). Now when we use TDML we
>are not using XML anymore, we are using TDML. If people write TDML tools,
>they will be TDML tools, just as todays HTML tools are HTML tools.
>Individuals will not be able to extend TDML without writing their own
>processing tools, any more than people today can extend HTML without writing
>their own tools. Tagging languages can be usefully extended by those who
>write the tools that process them, and not by anybody else. It you want the
>freedom to design your own language, you must accept the responsibility for
>creating your own processing applications.

From a tech writer's standpoint, though, the key is
not the tools--it's the idea that XML offers the potential
to make information widely access bile to normal people using
normal tools. Yes, I understand that your company makes high-end
SGML tools with XML capabilities, but XML browsing tools don't
have to be high end, expensive tools that are out of the reach
of many people developing online information AND out of the reach of
most people browsing online information. In other words, "processing
applications" aren't necessarily central to using XML--although
they could be, when necessary.

Your point about creating standard markup languages based on XML
has some validity, and there's probably a market out there
somewhere for a standard tech pubs markup language (although
I can't imagine what it might be). The value of XML is
in using it to create markup languages that meet specific
information development needs.

Attempting to standardize a TDML would lead quickly to
problems like those with HTML--that is, TDML wouldn't fit
all needs any more than HTML does, and the result would be
similar to what Microsoft and Netscape have done adding
extensions to HTML. These extensions, because they're
not universal, make it impossible to create Web pages
that are widely access bile. Likewise, IBM's extensions to
TDML would likely be incompatible with Sun's extensions to
XML. So, in standardizing a TDML, you'd end up no better off
than you would be using HTML.

That's not the point of XML. The point is that XML offers the
potential to get away from this problem. With XML, you
define your own rules (which is the same as defining your
own markup language) and create the XML document. You
wouldn't "extend" another markup language (and thereby compromise
its usefulness or accessibility).

>A DTD tells you what tags there are and what order they are allowed to be
>in. Nothing else.

Nope, not exactly. From the tools standpoint, maybe. But not from
the information providers' standpoint. Take, for example,
the following code, which you could easily create using
XML (technically speaking, using an XML-derived markup language):

(Let's take the DTD for this one as a given--quibbling
over DTD syntax misses the bigger issue completely.)

<CITATION SRC="Technical Communication" VOLUME="Nov96"
AUTHOR="David Leonard">Though not a cure-all for society's
ills, the Web is an important medium that is changing the
way we work and learn."</CITATION>

In this one line of code, you can
(a) specify that the words are a citation (as opposed to an
address or a heading).
(b) identify the source for the citation.
(c) further identify information about the source, such as the volume
of the journal and the author of the citation.

For technical writers, being able to identify this information
has worlds of potential!!

* The text is clearly marked, giving context to a string of words on
the page.
* The source of information is preserved--essential for teams of people
working on the same document or for documents that are developed over
a long period of time.
* The meta information about the citation (source, etc.) is available
for use or reuse--essential for making information available for
multiple uses or applications.
* The meta information also lends itself to automated processing
at any time.

You're right, Mark, exactly what the tags/attributes look like
(ASDFSD vs. CITATION) isn't important when talking about the
tools needed to browse XML documents. It IS important for people
(like tech writers) who develop information.

>>Mark wrote:
>>...XML alone will not do much for you.

I am simply alarmed by the
>general failure to appreciate that the point of XML is that it allows you to
>create custom information processing application very much more easily than
>if there were no standard. It is custom processing applications that do the
>real and exciting work. That is where people's enthusiasm and attention
>ought to be focused.

Huh? You're perhaps right that "custom processing applications" do
exciting work--technology is amazing these days, isn't it? But,
I suspect tech writers are even more excited about a markup
language that can make developing, designing, reusing, re-purposing,
and effectively presenting information easy and affordable.
That's what XML will do for us.


* Deborah S. Ray, debray -at- raycomm -dot- com,
* co-author _Mastering HTML 4.0_, _HTML 4 for Dummies Quick
Reference_, _The AltaVista Search Revolution_, and others.
* RayComm, Inc., currently accepting contract inquiries.

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