When you and your team, and even your boss, come to the conclusion that “there’s got to be a better way” to author technical content, your research will most likely point to DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) as the alternative to the word processing, copy-and-paste, formatting, and versioning nightmare you’ve worked in for so long. But before you jump on the bus to the DITA Promised Land, remember that there are viable alternatives to DITA that may actually better suit your needs.
Some technical content developers are put off by the do-it-yourself aspects of an open source standard like DITA and prefer to buy a self-contained package, even if that limits them to the features and applications included in that package.
Others look for something that better suits their unique situation—they would have to customize DITA so much that any benefits are outweighed by the effort (and one-way trip) that extensive customization would mean.
If your content development requirements seem to fit into one of these areas, do a bit more research before you make the commitment. The two categories of alternatives to DITA offer advantages and disadvantages that you need to weigh:
- Other XML-based approaches
- Semi- or non-structured solutions
Other XML Approaches
Any XML approach is going to give you some of the key benefits that DITA does, namely separating content from formatting.
DocBook: A technical publications XML approach that predates DITA, and for a while competed with DITA for popularity. Although it is an XML standard, DocBook is document-based, rather than topic-based and therefore limits the usability and reusability. On the other hand, you won’t necessarily need a component content management system with DocBook, saving you some money. Other functionality, such as DITA’s indirect linking mechanisms, simply do not exist in DocBook. In recent years, the DocBook adoption rate has stalled and its use has been in decline (based on anecdotal evidence). Like DITA, it separates content from formatting and most XML editors and component content management systems support it. DocBook also uses open source stylesheets that you will need to customize for your own use, similar to the DITA Open Toolkit. It is possible to convert DocBook to DITA and vice versa.
TEI: This XML specification (Text Encoding Initiative) is for creating machine-readable texts. It has its roots in SGML and only moved to XML relatively recently. It is used by libraries, museums, publishers, and individual scholars to present texts for online research, teaching, and preservation. It has a large set of elements (500 compared to DocBook’s 400). TEI also uses open source stylesheets that you will need to customize for your own use, similar to the DITA Open Toolkit. This specification is meant only for academics and has only about 70 members worldwide.
S1000D: Primarily used in the Aerospace industry, the S1000D specification is suited to long tables of detailed specifications of parts. There is some divisiveness in the Aerospace industry about the usefulness of this standard and its ability to grow into what is needed. Some aerospace industry participants use DITA instead.
SPFE: Developed by Mark Baker, SPFE (Synthesis, Presentation, Formatting, and Encoding) is a query-based structured authoring approach that looks promising but does not yet have widespread adoption or support. SPFE (or “spiffy”) is an architecture for building structured authoring and publishing systems that exploits the database features of XML, thus circumventing the need for an expensive CCMS.
Custom: A custom XML architecture is one that you develop yourself (most often with the help of a consulting firm specializing in XML custom development). The advantage is that you can build a standard that exactly meets your requirements. The disadvantage, assuming you have the time and skill to build something that is usable, is that you may then limited in terms of associated tools that you can use. Furthermore, you will lack the ability to share or deliver your source with any other partners or companies that want (a major benefit of DITA and its widespread adoption).
Semi- and Non-structured Solutions
There are many products available that give you a “package” that is meant to duplicate the effects of DITA. From wikis to software that works as both XML editor/publisher, semi- and non-structured solutions can provide less expensive alternatives that take less time to ramp up, but they come with some limitations as well.
Such solutions provide the advantage of being a one-stop solution. You buy the package that is available and don’t need to spend time figuring out the combination of tools you’ll need to meet your requirements. In addition, you don’t need as much technical knowledge and your learning curve may be less steep.
However, because you are buying a package, you face the disadvantage of not being able to choose the combination of tools you really need. Furthermore, any solution that is not based on XML at its core is not as efficient and flexible as it could be. Ultimately your content will be “stuck” in a proprietary solution, and your writers may also face a disadvantage in having learned skills that may not be transferable.
Moving to a new authoring approach is a giant step for any organization. Carefully consider your needs, both short-term and long-term, business objectives, and available resources, to determine if DITA or an DITA alternative is the best solution for you.