Re: marginally in the news!

Subject: Re: marginally in the news!
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- YAHOO -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 11 Jun 1999 18:51:57 -0700

--- Gil Yaker <gyaker -at- CSC -dot- COM> wrote:
> I have
> often thought that as the open source movement grows, we as tech writers
> might of any group stand to profit the most monitarily from the developers'
> work.

I disagree, open source and marginal technologies will probably hurt technical
writing for these reasons:

1) Open source technologies are rarely documented. When they are it is usually
done by engineers not tech writers.
2) Without a single entity owning such technologies, there is nobody to control
distribution, documentation, and many other ancillary aspects of software
marketing and development.
3) There is very little money in marginal technologies.
4) Marginal technologies are the domain of geeks and nerds who think
documentation is for wimps.

Open source technologies are rarely documented. When they are, it is usually a
few experts who publish a book. Most of the O'Reilly books are written by
programmers and engineers who use the tools - not technical writers. Similar
books are also usually written by programmers.

Furthermore, since these technologies are not owned by any one controlling
entity, there is no centralized management and distribution. What that means
to tech writers is that nobody is pushing the value of documentation for these
products. Documentation is an ancillary function of software development.
While it is a very important function, it is still ancillary. Somebody has to
put together the people to do that work. In open source, there is no one
person doing that. The documentation for most open source technologies is the
endless sea of comments, complains, tips, and tidbits strewn across the
newsgroups and chat rooms.

Those companies that are distributing open source technologies do not have
large revenue streams. It is hard to sell somebody a product they can get for
free. These distribution companies, like RedHat and Caldera, are producing
documentation but it is generally crude and unrefined. The marginality of
these technologies keeps them from being great sources of revenue. Without any
revenue being funneled into a controlling entity, there is no money for

I am reminded of one of my clients who developed an Office-like suite for the
Be operating system (BeOS. This company, Gobe Software, has an outstanding
program. However, since BeOS is still on the periphery of the operating system
market, they do not make any money. Therefore, they cannot afford much in the
way of documentation.

Finally, these technologies are still very much the domain of hardcore nerds
and geeks. This group overwhelmingly believes most documentation is useless.
Sure, some see the value in O'Reilly type manuals. However, as I mentioned
earlier, these books are written for geeks by geeks. Many of the O'Reilly
manuals are excellent sources of information, but they are not always the

The open source movement is not really anything new. It has been around since
the beginning of Internet time. It is only until recently that open source has
become something that big businesses perceive as viable for information systems
solutions. However, there are still many inherent pitfalls when implementing IS
solutions with open source technologies. Have you ever tried to install Linux?
It is not easy.

What open source does offer tech writers is the opportunity to sell your
expertise in one or more open source technologies to companies who need custom
software manuals. For example, I have used my knowledge of BeOS, Linux, and
FreeBSD to get jobs from companies implementing these open source technologies
in their business. These companies needed custom written documentation from a
writer who understood these technologies. Since there are so few writers with
this expertise, I could easily outbid any other writer for the job.

Certainly, open source technologies are encouraging something I have been
yapping about for years. Open source technologies are going to require writers
to become more technology oriented and less tool oriented. To be a successful
tech writer in the world of open source, you cannot rely merely on good writing
and FrameMaker skills. You will need to possess functional skills using what
ever it is you are documenting. Moreover, if you think they are no standards
in the current world of information systems, there is even less standards in
the land of open source.

Today, as long as you can plod through WinNT and a few tools you can call
yourself a tech writer. If open source takes off, that will no longer be the

Lastly, publishing a book is a hellish endeavor. I won't elaborate because it
could easily fill up 17 more posts. Just trust me on this one.

Personally, I think open source has a place in the market and that place is
growing. However, there is also a place for proprietary standards like
Windows. Nevertheless, I also think that in the future, writers will not be
able to get by on their writing skills alone. The writer of the future will be
required to understand the technologies they are documenting. What I hope is
that writers stop selling themselves as experts with FrameMaker or RoboHelp and
experts with Windows NT, UNIX, databases - or other such fundamental IS

Incidentally, open source was the topic on today's Talk of the Nation on NPR.
Does anyone know if the guy who does "Science Friday" is named Ira Plato or Ira
Flata? I can never tell by the way he pronounces it. He might be some long
lost relative of mine.

Anyway, I think I am going to go waste some more of my youth on that wonderful
thing they call television. Duhhhhhhhhhhh.

Andrew Plato
President / Principal Drooling Vegetable
Anitian Consulting, Inc

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