Beyond | IT: Business. Architecture. Technology. Strategy. John Mullinax's blog.
Content Technologies presented at the Content Management Strategies conference in Santa Clara, California, this past April on their DITA Exchange product. Being a DITA XML authoring, collaboration, and publication management solution built on MOSS 2007 makes DITA Exchange pretty interesting. Even more interesting, Content Technologies unveiled an OBA (Office Business Application) during their talk in Santa Clara. Basically, it’s an add-in for Word 2007 that lets subject matter experts contribute DITA XML content using Office Word without ever having to even see an XML tag. Cool! I wouldn’t call myself a DITA expert by any stretch – but I started looking at DITA about 9 or ten months ago. My impression was that DITA was a pretty valuable concept… structured topic-based SME authoring, document assembly – really good stuff.
But I also noticed that successfully adopting DITA in the real world seemed to require a significant investment in specialist tooling and training that eroded the actual payoff of DITA. So Gabor Fari (also of Microsoft) and I began discussing a Word-based OBA with Content Technologies that could complement DITA Exchange. Would a Word OBA for DITA Exchange, I wondered, help Content Technologies take a great idea – DITA – from the specialist Content Management community and democratize it? In other words, could Content Technologies successfully leverage the familiarity and ubiquity of Office to make DITA approachable and practical for widespread SME use?
Gabor and I recently had the chance to catch up with Steffen Frederiksen, one of Content Technologies founders, via email on DITA and OXML, their OBA, and Danish beer. Here’s our version of “20 Questions”.
JM: Tell me a little bit about yourselves
SF: We all have an extensive background in the content- and document management space. Some of us have worked with structured writing methods since 1990 - and with SGML and later XML since 1996. Managing the total content life cycle – with nothing left out – has played a major role in our professional lives: Making it easy to find and read content, collaborate around content, enabling content reuse, doing single-source publishing, making XML really useful even for people with no XML expertise and changing technical documentation from being a cost center into a real business asset – these are all key themes for us: Make it simple, to make it work!
JM: Tell me a little about Content Technologies
SF: Content Technologies was founded in 2000. Throughout its life, the company has focused on XML-based authoring tools and content management solutions – but in 2006, we redefined the company around the release of SharePoint 2007. This new version of the SharePoint platform held enormous potential for building real business solutions – and we wanted to go there with everything we had.
JM: Content Technologies has a solution built on MOSS called DITA Exchange – what is DITA?
SF: DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) is really two things: It is a topic-based content architecture and it is an XML-based open standard for creating and publishing reusable content. It was originally developed by IBM for internal use and has since been released to the open-source community (now under the guidance of OASIS). The DITA OASIS Standard defines an XML architecture for designing, writing, managing, and publishing strongly typed topics, mostly for technical documentation on print and on the Web. DITA builds content reuse into the authoring process for document creation and management.
Focusing on a common topic model as a conceptual unit of authoring, DITA provides a core set of topic types derived from concept, task, and reference. DITA defines a specialization mechanism for extending markup to represent either new topic types or new domains of markup common across sets of topic types. DITA maps can combine topics into various kinds of deliverables. Content can be shared among maps or topics. Class-based processing ensures that new specializations can be supported with existing tools, speeding up the testing and adoption of new designs.
DITA has been and is being adopted by Fortune 1000 companies around the world with an unprecedented speed at the moment. The business drivers in this are both huge potential cost savings and (equally or even more important) reduced time-to-market for products and services.
JM: Why would someone use DITA vs. OXML or a proprietary schema for high end xml content management?
SF: First of all, building solutions based on proprietary XML schemas is something a lot of companies have tried – and in many cases failed with: It leaves you alone, with no-one else to share tools, costs, or even your content with. Been there, done that – and it just did not provide the business value it was supposed to deliver. Secondly, the direct comparison of DITA and OXML is a false one:
DITA is strongly typed and has very strict rules for content structure and sequence in reusable topics. OXML on the other hand has been designed to be able to handle both unstructured and structured content, both transient content and reusable content: OXML has to be able to handle any kind of content in any kind of structure (including pure ”spaghetti information”) that anyone could ever think of putting in a Word document. Not an easy task – but I think the OXML folks have actually met this objective. As an example of this enormous flexibility in OXML – it can actually host the strongly typed DITA topics! OXML is like a large container ship: It can handle thousands of different containers – with whatever goods they might contain. DITA is more like 5 specially designed containers – that can only accomodate a special type of cargo.
JM: What makes DITA Exchange different than other DITA solutions – or other doc assembly, single-source publishing, topic-based authoring solutions?
SF: Four words: Standard, Open, Simple, and SharePoint! Our solution combines the strengths of the DITA standard and the SharePoint market standard. It is extremely open, so users can collaborate on DITA content using their favorite XML editor, Word 2007, or just a browser. It is simple: You can get started and produce results without being confronted by even a single XML tag – and without having to be a DITA expert. And then DITA Exchange offers our customers the richness of the SharePoint platform: Collaboration, authentication, records management, web parts, versioning, workflows, skinning, personalization, LOB connections, etc. All in all, this is a very hard cocktail to beat for our competitors.
Furthermore, we offer DITA Exchange either as a hosted service or as an inhouse solution – with a highly scalable monthly fee per user: This makes it very easy and fast to get started with DITA Exchange, with a minimal up-front investment. You can demonstrate real business value from day 5! Again, this is quite different from most of our competitors.
JM: Why did you start Content Technologies?
SF: Well, at least for the restructuring around DITA Exchange: We spotted this gaping hole in the market. There was a huge latent demand for an easy to use yet sophisticated DITA solution based on SharePoint. We had the ideas and skills needed to fill this gap and bring the solution to the customers.
JM: You just presented at the Content Management Strategies conference – what was that like?
SF: It was a very nice experience – for many reasons: Many are just taken by the ease-of-use and richness of a SharePoint-based solution. Others have chosen to implement the DITA standard – at the same time that their company has decided to use SharePoint as the common platform – so they have been strugling with this “two-standard-compliance”. Obviously this is a perfect match for DITA Exchange.
JM: What kind of response did you get?
SF: Well, 4 large companies asked us at the conference how they could get started with DITA Exchange asap, 3 other companies wanted to sign up with us as distributors or resellers – and then there was a large number of companies that wanted us to get back to them with more information and to setup webinar demos. Not bad. Interestingly, several of our direct competitors in the DITA CMS space came to us to discretely tell us: “You have some really good stuf there”. That felt good.
JM: Why did you decide to build DITA Exchange on MOSS?
SF: SharePoint 2007 added a number of critically important features that made it possible to implement a full content management solution based on a complex XML standard on the platform. Furthermore, there is just no way any large company get a succesful DITA implementation if it is based on a highly specialized, closed XML-based content management solution: This will lead to an isolated “inside the tech-doc-silo” solution – and the real business value of DITA (cost savings and faster time-to-market) will evaporate.
To get the full value of DITA, you need an open, scalable, corporate collaboration platform – and SharePoint 2007 is currently being chosen by companies around the globe.
JM: I know you mentioned something about a Word 2007 OBA for DITA Exchange in your CMS presentation – what can you tell us about that? For example, what does it do? Is it for general SMEs? xml specialists? Everyone? Is it generally available? Has it been hard to build? (and why or why not?)
SF: The main objective for the Word 2007 OBA is to allow subject-matter experts and DITA experts to use the rich, familiar Word 2007 environment while participating in DITA content collaboration projects and workflows within the DITA Exchange/SharePoint 2007 platform. The idea has been to reuse all the MOSS-integration features in Word 2007 while replacing all Word’s formatting with one single ribbon, that contains and handles all the formatting available in the DITA standard. The OBA actually converts DITA xml to OXML (using custom xml parts within the OXML) and back in order to allow users to use the Word canvas for editing – plus it offers a handful of nice features that support the DITA authoring process in general.
By far the hardest part to accomplish this is to include and support the entire DITA schema from within Word 2007. The DITA schemas are complex, and although Word supports custom schemas, Word 2007 is basically an OXML-editor tightly bound to the OXML schema. The OBA is built from scratch with Visual studio 2008 using VSTO 3.0, .NET 3.5 and the SDK for Open XML (which is still in beta). From way back in the days with Word 97, we have a lot of experience in designing and developing similar solutions that provides topic-bases content authoring by using VBA and custom COM add-ins. Moving to managed code, utilizing Word’s XML-features (since 2003) and now the OXML-format gives us some obvious advantages and allows us to produce this OBA a lot faster than back in the VBA-days.
The OBA will be available as part of the DITA Exchange license around July 1st.
JM: What has the reaction been like to the OBA so far?
SF: A lot of companies are even VERY excited about the OBA solution: This will open the door to collaborate effortlessly between XML, tech-doc specialists and engineers, product management, marketing and other subject matter experts. So far, this kind of collaboration required that you could ”force” a special XML editor on all of these people – and they tend not to respond favorably to this! This has been a real stopping block in many organizations that we work with.
JM: Content Technologies is based in Denmark, and I know you’ve had the chance to work with a number of different companies in the US and Europe and maybe other places as well – have you noticed any regional differences in how people approach DITA and Content Management?
SF: Practically all of the companies we are working with are really global companies, trying to deal with global issues. Furthermore, the DITA standard – and the SharePoint standard - provides us with a common understanding, or a shared conceptual framework – that makes it easy to communicate around the globe.
So the answer really is: No, we have not found this to be the case at all.
JM: Your solution is very robust – something that a big enterprise would want to use. But your company is fairly small and young (how big are you again?) – what is it like serving big companies, but not being a big company? Are there special challenges that go with that? How do you handle them?
SF: First of all, a lot of the robustness of our solution is actually derived from the SharePoint platform. So thanks to the SharePoint folks in Redmond. Secondly, we are busy implementing a global network of DITA Exchange implementation partners. Right now, I think we are represented like this in 15 countries. These partners will do a lot of the implementation and customization work with our large customers – leaving the core product development and overall marketing and support to us.
This model has proven itself to be very effective and profitable for our customers, for our partners, and for us.
GF: Content Technologies is a very small company, and Microsoft is a very large organization. Can you tell us a bit about what your experience has been so far, working with the Microsoft team to develop this OBA?
SF: We are indeed a small company, but we thought we had a big idea – and it was a real pleasure to find that the people in Microsoft we are working with (primarily John Mullinax and Gabor Fari) enthusiastically supported this. They have really been extremely helpful and responsive, provided us with prospects, helped expand our network of partners, provided direct access to technical expertise inside the Redmond product teams – as well as provide vital feedback on some of our ideas for the product. In other words: It has been a pleasure!
JM: I understand you offer DITA Exchange as either on-premise software or as a hosted solution…. Are there differences between them? Can customers use the OBA in either model? Can customers tap into line-of-business systems data with either model?
SF: Yes, DITA Exchange with the OBA can be used in both models. We have taken great care to design our solution inside the SharePoint “envelope”. This means we profit from all the SharePoint connections and wiring.
JM: Describe the ideal customer situation for DITA Exchange – where it can really shine.
SF: Here are some key characteristics for the “ideal” customer and use case:
JM: What kind of scenario would NOT be right for DITA Exchange?
JM: What’s next for Content Technologies?
SF: Serving our customers! Marketing the OBA solution. Expanding our network. And then all the new stuff that we are busy with behind the scenes… Our mission is simple: We want to create the best SharePoint-based DITA solution in the world.
JM: If I come to visit you in Denmark, what is the best beer that I should try?
SF: …. Sam Adams (no, that was a joke). Go for “FUR Renæssance”
JM: Anything else you want to add?
SF: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” - Leonardo da Vinci
More information on Content Technologies and DITA Exchange can be found at http://www.dita-exchange.com.