On Adobe Framemaker 9, DITA, and XML

Adobe recently released its newest version of software geared towards technical writers, FrameMaker 9. Needless to say, I downloaded and installed the demo version of the software. When it was done, I was excited to see the interface was updated to look like their flagship products in the Adobe Creative Suite 4, complete with the CAPITAL LETTER tabbed interface (you make your software for designers; what the hell were you thinking?!). It certainly beats the existing interface, which is so quirky you wonder how anyone uses it.

Other than that, it’s the same-old Frame, which was initially UNIX-based (and it shows). The menu options are exactly the same, and there no new options to set, at least in unstructured mode. Adobe is a huge font producer, but yet Frame 9 doesn’t fully support OpenType? We tech writers like our ligatures, too.

The new features page indicates more support for DITA, the latest XML buzzword in the technical documentation community. I helped to implement a DITA workflow at a prior job; DITA and XML are not a push-button-and-get-your-doc solution. It requires a lot of work to convert existing documentation to DITA, and it should really require someone who’s an expert at this. In this economy, it’s not easy to justify that kind of cost. There is a lot of prep work required before you even write a word. For single-writer environments, there is little return on investment, and if a company’s not going to hire a second writer, there’s no way they’re going to pay for a consultant to come in and do what’s necessary. Single writers with deadlines simply don’t have the time to invest in learning all they need on company time, while maintaining their documentation.

Frankly, I think the dirty little secret of these XML-based solutions is XSL (Extensible Style Language). XSL is a programming language (no, it’s not really a language, but bear with me on this) that is supposed to separate content from formatting, much like CSS does for HTML. However, XSL is design by programming; everything is done with if-then statements. I took a course on it, and was baffled; who decided design should be done in code?

Before technical writers and writing groups push forward with DITA because it’s the latest and greatest, they really need to determine if they can afford, in both financial and stress costs, the amount of preparation, programming, and grunt work necessary to make it work for their environment. At the very least, one full-time, dedicated resource is necessary to make the move. I am a big fan of change, and usually upgrade the software i use as quickly as possible, but I’m probably not going to ask my employer to pay $399 for this upgrade.

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