What Macaulay Culkin Can Teach You About Technical Writing

OMG, I need an XML tech authoring tool!Remember Macaulay Culkin? The child star of Home Alone peaked very early and, despite many attempts, never managed to make the same impact as an adult. Larry Kunz asks if a similar fate awaits DITA, the one-time golden child of the tech comms industry.

Larry says that last week another technical writer asserted that DITA has “jumped the shark.” “It’s not a new idea. I’ve heard other people say that DITA has already seen its best days, that it’s struggling to remain relevant in a world that’s passed it by. I was amused, I admit, because it was the first time I’d seen DITA compared to a TV show.”

What does the future hold for DITA?

Larry identifies four areas where DITA fits into the content creation lifecycle and also the benefits it offers technical writers.

  1. Content + Community — content comes from all over the enterprise, not just from the technical writing department, and from outside the enterprise (customers and end users) as well.
  2. Content + Structure— the next step is to organize & format this community-based content in usable way. DITA, based on XML, help tag content for the semantic Web.
  3. Content + Collaboration —DITA-wiki tools will make it practical for everyone to “contribute content… and for the content to be formatted in a consistent fashion according to the enterprise’s requirements.”
  4. Agile Software Development —DITA helps tech writers generate review drafts more easily as reviews are based on separate topics rather a single document.

Will DITA Become Adopted as a Standard?

Larry adds that “DITA is a standard. It can grow in whatever directions the community wants to take it.”

I have to admit, I’ve never got my teeth into DITA. It’s something I’ve read about but never had the opportunity to use. Why?

  • Products – If DITA was developed by a company with a financial incentive (i.e. productized) to make it work, then there may be a greater adoption.
  • Ownership – as it’s ‘just’ a standard, then no-one really owns it.
  • Compelling reasons – the third is that I can’t see (and forgive my ignorance here!) a compelling reason for companies to adopt DITA. I can see the benefits but for a company to invest in training, tools etc there needs to be a strong business case – and with DITA, I don’t see it. Whereas with XML, I could see the business opportunities that it offered, which no doubt accelerated its adoption.

Industry Adoption

I asked Larry which companies have embraced DITA, for example, is it part of Adobe’s FrameMaker or Tech Comms suite?

Larry’s take on this is that “DITA will have greater adoption if it’s embraced by the software vendors. The good news is, this is already happening.”

FrameMaker has been DITA-compliant since version 8 and while Adobe might not have “embraced” DITA with a whole-hearted DITA-Frame integration, it’s at least shown a willingness to shake hands.

  • Bluestream’s XDoc – DITA-compliant Content Management System
  • Madcap –Blaze and Flare support DITA
  • XMetal – DITA-based reviewing tool called Reviewer

Has DITA Jumped the Shark?

Last word to Larry: “the trend is clear. An increasing number of commercial vendors are seeing that there’s a market for DITA-compliant tools. And several of the tools are going way beyond simple DITA-compliance to full-blown integration with DITA.”

How do you use DITA?

Like I said, I haven’t used DITA on a live project.

  • Where do you see its role in the technical writing community?
  • What do we need to do to increase its adoption or raise its profile?
  • What is the one thing it offers to technical writers that other tools don’t offer?

Let me know what you think. Please add your thoughts below and let’s get the ball rolling.

PS – What is shark jumping, anyway?