DITA is not the answer

Single sourcing is good, I’m sure most of us can agree on that, but I’ve recently been wondering if perhaps DITA isn’t quite good enough?

The thing is, I’ve been looking at DITA as a solution for our single sources needs for a while now. I’ve attended conferences, read whitepapers, listened to vendors and everything else that goes with it and I’ve got a pretty good handle on things. If applied correctly the benefits you can gain are very large, although the same can be said of any other single source project, yet what seems to be consistently missing during all of these wonderfully theoretical discussions is the cost and impact of getting such a solution “applied correctly”.

A key part of planning to move to single source, of which DITA is only a part, is understanding the business needs and technological requirements of all of the content producers in your organisation. Traditionally that means Technical Communications, Training, Pre-Sales and Marketing, with perhaps other flavours to be considered depending on how your company is structured.

However, if those parts of your organisation aren’t yet ready to move, then the business case changes. At present this is the situation I’m in, so I find myself looking for a short-term (2-3 year) solution that won’t lock us in to a proprietary format and that can give us benefits as soon as possible.

Re-use is our main reason for moving to single source. We don’t (yet) localise, and there is only one other team that has any interest in re-using our content (and even then, they are likely to use it as an source of verification, not a source of content). With that in mind, and with the proviso that I’ve used it previously, we are looking at AuthorIT.

Yes it does mean we forego a lot of the power of DITA but as it will allow us to tag topics accordingly (in keeping with the DITA model) and it does have an XML DITA output option, then it shouldn’t lock us in. I’m willing to put up with a little pain further down the road to get the benefits now.

I’m still not entirely sure what else we are missing. We publish PDFs, HTML and Javahelp, all of which AuthorIT handles, and as yet we don’t have a need to dynamically publish information based on metadata. If that changes in the near future then we’ll handle it appropriately but it isn’t on anyone’s radar.

I am concerned about the versioning capabilities of AuthorIT as we maintain the last 3 versions of all our publications, but I know there are ways to achieve this in AuthorIT. I doubt it will work as well as our current system (FrameMaker files in an SVN repository) but, as is always the case, I do expect we may need to make some compromises to get ourselves moving towards single sourcing our publications. This is our main pain point and so becomes the focus for any possible solution.

DITA remains the long-term goal but, and I’ve said this before, until there is an all in one solution that is easy to rollout it remains marginalised as a viable option. Most of us need to produce some form of business case to justify such purchases and, at present, DITA is still too costly an option. I’m always happy to learn new things, and whilst I would love to be able to invest time and resource into creating and maintaining a DITA based solution, I just can’t justify it.

All of my research suggests that, rather than being a simple installation and conversion process, creating a DITA solution requires a lot of technical know-how and a not insubstantial amount of time and resource. We can handle the first, the latter is (I believe) not yet at a level which makes it cost-effective.

Ultimately, for the moment, DITA costs too much.

Do you agree? Can you prove me wrong? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, particularly if you have implemented DITA already. I’m keen to hear just how more productive a DITA solution can be if you aren’t involved in localisation. Have you recouped your costs yet?

Perhaps DITA is only really applicable for those with large budgets and the chance to invest heavily upfront. Alas I’m not in such a position. For the moment.