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Lovely DITA, DocBook fades?

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Following on from my previous look at XTech proposals, I wanted to comment on one of the hot topics contributed to the Applications track. While this track will push all the buttons (we've got Rails, RSS, web services, content management and more) one of the really striking things was the number of proposals on the topic of DITA.

If you're not a regular in the tech docs world, then DITA is probably at best just another acronym you've seen whizzing by. DITA stands for the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, and it's a new document format making waves in the world of technical documentation.

From a casual documenter's point of view, the obvious question is probably "what does this mean for DocBook?" Does the mass of enthusiasm mean DocBook's on its way out? In short, no.

DocBook and DITA compared 

DITA and DocBook are actually rather different beasts. DocBook is a sound DTD for writing technical books and articles, with the structure that such forms imply. DITA is focused on creating modular technical documents, with the intent for easy reuse across varied delivery methods. It's intended for topic-oriented documentation, which may be chopped about and rearranged within a variety of contexts and for a variety of display devices.

DITA is a DTD and a set of rules for writing online contextual documentation such as software help files. There's a lot more to it than I'll write here, but here a few more differences between DocBook and DITA:

  • DocBook is hierarchical, DITA separates content from context allowing multiple architectures of information
  • DocBook is a fixed element and attribute set, DITA is extensible, allowing the definition of custom information types
  • DocBook is much more mature than DITA, with a variety of solid tool support options. DITA's the new kid on the block.
  • DocBook is well documented, DITA's documentation is still in the early stages.

There's a real need for something like DITA, which addresses concerns that didn't really exist in the same way when DocBook first emerged at O'Reilly in the early 1990s.

DITA and open source projects

I'm looking forward to learning more about DITA, but one thing that immediately strikes me about it is its relevance to some of the documentation problems faced by open source projects. DocBook has never quite clicked as a documentation format for some collaboratively maintained projects, probably because the inevitable book-like nature of the result necessitates sole or restricted authorship, and heavy editing.

Instead one of the increasingly popular ways for providing documentation has been the wiki. You guessed it, a topic-based architecture. What wikis seem to lack, however, is any way of providing a thought-out progression through the content. In essence, the information architecture side of things. Had I been able to attend every session from XTech last year, I'd have heard Paul Prescod talk about what DITA and wikis have in common.

There may be a downside, however. DITA looks impressively engineered, but it may be too industrial-strength for many. My initial investigations suggests that while there's emergent commercial tool support, there's not much going on in the open source field (although there is the DITA Open Toolkit, which looks to have been produced in close association with OASIS technical committee now in charge of DITA.)

As DocBook guru Norm Walsh observes, DocBook can play in this space too. With additions such as those Norm proposes, DocBook could play host to DITA's major features. (Norm writes "With a couple of hours of hacking, I've implemented on top of DocBook the four key features of DITA that I could identify.")

Though these possibilities are intriguing, I think that, for open source projects, things need to get simpler rather than harder.

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