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Saturday, December 03, 2005

XML for books: Simple is enough!

Many technical writers have been looking long and hard at working with XML, for a variety of reasons — ranging from a resume bullet-point to a genuine hope that it could improve productivity and help us better maintain our documentation. The problem is, vendors and consultants are the primary cheerleaders for XML solutions; they’re are all too ready to roll out six-figure systems to the few companies that have documentation departments with sufficient budgets and ignore all the rest of us. I’ve ranted in the Yahoo XML-doc mailing list about this topic, warning that XML is poised to sink into obscurity like its predecessor SGML, and for the same reasons. I truly believe that if XML is to gain widespread acceptance by technical writers, there needs to be a simple (cheap, easy to learn, no consultants required) XML-based system that can produce real documentation. Something no more complex than HTML, for example.

As it turns out, standard HTML may be all that’s needed. Printing a Book with CSS: Boom! describes how the authors created a published (to paper) book using HTML to mark up the text, and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to provide the formatting. The trick is to use a commercial CSS-based formatter that supports the proposed functionality in CSS3 (a future standard), which provides page layout necessities like headers and footers.

My hat is off to the authors. We now know that HTML/CSS is adequate for book publishing; knowing that it’s feasible is half the battle.

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