DCL Interview with Bob Doyle - Why DITA?

Data Conversion Labs recently interviewed me. Here is the link.


And here is the interview...

Why DITA? An Interview with Bob Doyle


The Man Who Helped Invent Video Games, Desktop Publishing, and New Tools to Help you Learn Topic-Based Authoring


Original Merlin handheld game.
Photo courtesy Creative Commons


You may not know Bob Doyle by name, but you certainly know some things he invented. Even if you weren't born yet when he came up with some of his inventions, they have changed the way you work and play. In 1978 Bob invented one of the first hand held electronic games, Merlin, featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine and selling 5.5 million units in 1980, making it the biggest selling game of the year. In 1984 he invented the first desktop publishing software, MacPublisher. Later he developed Skybuilders, a web publishing tool that led to the first podcast in 2003. He founded Content Management Professionals (CMPros), and a whole network of DITA-related web sites including DITA Users, DITA Tutor, and DITA Infocenter, among others.

We wondered why a guy like Bob Doyle, with a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Harvard University, and so many successful innovations, would be so interested in something like DITA. So we asked him.

DCL News: Bob, few people outside the Content Management world, have even heard of content management or DITA. How did you get interested?

Bob Doyle, Inventor

"I love to build communities and give people tools."


Bob: I see content management as a web version of 1980's desktop publishing. Content management really began with Vignette back in 1995, if you can believe it, when they commercialized the first CMS that CNet had built for their own website. Though business in a broad sense has only embraced content management for the past several years, Vignette was talking about it back then. If you take a look at their 1996 web page at waybackmachine.org you'll read about things like dynamic content, that business has only just begun to talk about. A tag line on the Vignette home page from 1996 says, "Where Web sites deliver on the promise of unlimited, dynamic content and personalized experiences for every visitor, every time."

DCL: What about DITA piqued your interest? Does it relate to your background in desktop publishing?

"DITA Is the embodiment of several best publishing practices…. It really has it all, plus it's translation-friendly"

Bob: DITA Is the embodiment of several best publishing practices - content reuse, single-sourcing, modularity, information typing, structured writing, minimalism, inheritance, specialization, simplified XML, topic-based, conditional processing, component publishing, task-orientation, multiple output formats, multi-channel delivery. It really has it all, plus it's translation-friendly, which is pretty important to a lot of people since globalization is what can make a company more competitive.

My MacPublisher was unlike the monolithic PageMaker and Quark Xpress in that it assembled publications from distinct and reusable article components, which is what we are seeing more of today, especially with DITA.

DCL: You've invented a lot of interesting technology, and you have a PhD in astrophysics, so why the interest in DITA and making it available for others to use?

Bob: My first project after getting my PHD was a worldwide collaboration of astronomers to support the observations made by the Skylab astronauts. I love to build communities and give people tools. I also enjoy learning new technologies and teaching others about them. That's why I started CMPros and now DITA Users. I enjoy getting together people who want to learn about DITA and helping people get started with topic-based writing.

DCL: Why do you think DITA is important? Is it just for the technical publishing community or for everyone in business?

Bob: IBM thinks it will do lots more than just technical publishing, eLearning and training, for example. I am waiting to see whether they succeed. It would be great for education. It also promises to help conventional publishers become web publishers with its single-source publishing to print and the Web.

DCL: What do you think the future of DITA is?

"If organizations see a high ROI in things like using topic-based authoring, conditional processing, task-orientation, component publishing, information typing, minimalism, inheritance, specialization, and simplified XML, then we will see DITA grow."

Bob: It may always be the simplest way to get into XML, but we'll see. As the standard for structured content, XML will be key in the future. Because DITA adds so many benefits, and some costs, to XML, organizations need to weigh the additional tangible and intangible costs, and the effect on return on investment when considering moving to DITA. This, I think, will determine the future of DITA. If organizations see a high ROI in things like using topic-based authoring, conditional processing, task-orientation, component publishing, information typing, minimalism, inheritance, specialization, and simplified XML, then we will see DITA grow.

DCL: Many companies have investments in legacy documentation they might convert and reuse. Can DITA be used with legacy documentation? Is there a way to blend legacy documentation and new documents into the same DITA map to avoid expensive rewriting?

Bob: There is no question that what DCL provides is chunks or components of content in XML that could, in principle, feed your assembly of DITA Topics with DITA Maps. Converted components can be combined with newly authored topics to produce new documents.

While not all legacy documentation is suitable for conversion to structure, when docs have been prepared using templates or simply contain a lot of similar sets of information then DCL conversions can recover information for use in a structured XML environment that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive to recreate. Unstructured documents can often be converted to XML structures by legacy conversion specialists as well, but when looking forward any organization looking to manage content more easily in the future should be looking at ways to add that structure explicitly.

DCL: Where is DITA being used in the real world?

Bob: The famous ones are Adobe with their Creative Suites, IBM itself of course, and PTC , who bought Arbortext and are now converting their docs to DITA. You can get an idea of some of the organizations that are using DITA, and what they are using DITA for, by viewing the list of case studies on the dita.xml.org web site.

DCL: What is the one thing you think holds organizations back from launching a DITA project and what can be done to change that?

Bob: Training writers to write topics instead of linear narratives. This is very different from how most writers are used to authoring. Authors are being asked to write modular content components that can be assembled in many different ways by the dynamic publishing engines. Content is now considered a group of components like interchangeable parts that can be plugged into a machine, or electronic parts that can be plugged together in a system. Content is modular-bits of text, images, audio and video media, Flash animations, 3D objects, and complex learning objects with built-in testing. And all these malleable pieces have XML with metadata in common.

So rather than writing long narratives, our assembly line writers will now be asked to author stand-alone topics that can be assembled by a component CMS, but also post-tagged by us someday to form our own personal knowledge bases. I wrote more extensively on this in my Assembly Line Writers article in the November 2007 EContent.

DCL: Tell us about DITAUsers.org. It looks like it might be a tool that can help those writers move toward the topic-based authoring they are being asked to do.

"(DITA Users) gets tech writers 'from A to B'."

Bob: It's really about the first steps to get started with DITA and writing structured topics. We say it gets tech writers "from A to B," Authoring to Building and publishing in multiple channels. Once they understand these basics, then they are ready to explore over fifty DITA tools from A to Z, including tools for legacy conversion. We have a link to the DCLNews article Convert to DITA or S1000D? on our website.

We list DITA solutions ranging from free (because of the free and open-source DITA Open Toolkit) to over three-hundred thousand dollars.

The purpose of the site is to help writers who are good at what they are doing, but need to get involved with topic-based structured writing. As you know, if you want to start to use DITA, in most cases you need to download and install the DITA Open Toolkit. For most tech writers (who are not really techies) it's really quite complicated to download. DITA Users need not install anything or know XML to begin topic- based structured writing using the DITAUsers.org web site. They can use the browser-based DITA Storm editor or the desktop XML editor with WebDAV access to author structured content in their own online workspace folder.

Writers can have multiple projects in their personal workspace, or writing teams can share a workspace. Each project includes source files, build files, and output files. They can process files to HTML, PDF, Help, and other publishing formats with the DITA Open Toolkit on our server.

DCL: DITA Users sounds like a pretty good source of information for DITA users and wannabes. Where else do you think folks should look for more information?

Bob: DITA.XML.org is the official OASIS community reference. I am on the OASIS Editorial Board. But I found I can build out websites optimized for specific DITA community needs faster than the official organization can move, thus my many DITA sites - DITABlog.com, DITAInfocenter.com, DITANews.com, DITATutor.com, and DITAWiki.org. Other independent sites are ditamap.com and DITAWorld.com, plus of course see DITA on Wikipedia.

DCL: Thank you Bob. It's been a pleasure talking with you. And we look forward to whatever you have yet to invent.

DCLNews Editorial
January 2008


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