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Echoes from the past: DITA, Help, Single-Sourcing tools -- Looking from the 60s to today

by Tom Johnson on Aug 4, 2008
categories: technical-writing

This is a guest post by Daniel Ng, a technical writer in Malaysia. Daniel mentioned an interesting article he'd read on the possible return of Corel Ventura, and I asked him to expand his thoughts in a guest post.

A few months ago, a particular reply in a long-running Techwhirler mailing list discussion on minimalism and Information Mapping in documentation caught my attention. The original post covered, in almost chronological order, the development of the ideas and discussions that are so popular in DITA, single-sourcing, and content reuse.

The original discussion cites practically all the popular technical communication textbooks and references we read today, from JoAnn Hackos to Ruth Clark, Gretchen Hargis, Ann Rockley and Kurt Ament.

Evolution of "minimalism, Nurnberg funnels and DITA"

I'll just reproduce part of the original post by Bob Doyle (creator of the first DTP program, MacPublisher, 1984) that caught my eye. The original post has all the useful hyperlinks in place. It's well linked and referenced, and I highly recommend the reading the original:

The historian of technical communications, R. John Brockmann, researched efforts to document products going back centuries. He finds that some of today's hottest new documentation ideas were present in the work of those creating, documenting, and selling the technology of manufacturing just after the revolutionary war.

Today's computers, with their spectacular graphical interfaces, allow us to present animated visual images, even 3-D models to illustrate complex machinery. But this is not the work of the everyday tech writer. Flash animations and computer-aided design (CAD) demand skills more like those found in a game design team than a lone tech writer and wordsmith.

Reading this inspired me to investigate some of the tools and origins on Wikipedia. The following is what turned up in my search.

Evolution of tools that let you publish lengthy, complex documents

1981: Quicksilver or Interleaf by Broadvision

"A competitor of the Adobe FrameMaker product. Broadvision acquired Interleaf in January 2000 … still in use in many companies worldwide. "

1986: Ventura

"The first popular desktop publishing package for IBM PC" … developed at the legendary labs of Xerox Parc in 1986. Originally known as Ventura Publisher. Acquired by Corel Corp (owners of PaintShop Pro and Draw!).

1986: FrameMaker

"Adobe FrameMaker is a desktop publishing (DTP) and word processing application that is popular for large documents … Designed by an extraordinary mathematician … an extraordinary product for its day, enabling authors to produce highly structured documents with relative ease … attempts to sell to home DTP was a disaster … did not feature multiple undo until version 7.2"

1987: Quark Xpress by Quark

"A computer application for creating and editing complex page layouts…The first version of QuarkXPress was released in 1987 for the Macintosh… 1992 for PC." Single-sourcing is called the Quark Dynamic Publishing Architecture.

2006: Blaze by MadCap Software

In development.

How are these products doing and viewed today?

Most of these products still exist today in various versions. What does 20-year-old software look like? Do they look anything like their originals? Fast forwarding to today, let's take a look at a few quick snapshots from the Internet.

Turning over a new leaf at Quark

"Criticised heavily in recent times for selling what some believe to be an overpriced and outdated product with a lack of customer support, Quark is at pains to affirm that it has finally got its house in order." (See "Turning over a new leaf at Quark.")

Note: For some reason, the original comments posted by readers on the post above appear to have been filtered out. It was the original fiery readers' comments in relation to the news article above that made this link so memorable to me even after all this time … a bit like the monkeyPi post.

A Modest Proposal for Reviving Ventura Publisher

The community speaks out on a need to revive Corel Ventura. You can still find Corel Ventura for a bargain on the Corel site -- very 90s.

FrameMaker rebundled, updated, petitions for Macs

New features and fixes have been added to FrameMaker 8 in recent months, including fixes, new features and bundlings for a Tech Comms suite. There are also petitions from a very vocal community base …


A fair number of these tools have roots that go back to the 1980s. For example, Interleaf and its Technical Publishing System got its start in 1981.

SGML and the work of Charles Goldfarb and others started the foundations that would then lead to XML, which is the foundation today in modern desktop publishing and help publishing tools from Flare, Blaze, AuthorIT, etc.

This post was simply a journey into the past, a curiosity to examine the foundations and evolution of tools and thoughts that led us to the new generation of tools, XHTML and CSS standards that we rely on today. For every conditional tag, hyperlink and cross-reference you use, glyph, or PDF document you create, remember the pioneers.

Still, the tools of today have new challenges that must go beyond print or big complex books. Publishing to compliant online formats is important, as is built-in search, web commenting and expectations on user participation. An exciting time ... indeed.

About Daniel Ng

Daniel Ng, a technical writer/trainer/knowledge manager of four years, is passionate about technical writing, and is a converted MadCap Flare and Lingo user in Malaysia. He occasionally spends weekends conducting 15 minute Creative PowerPoint sessions for youth at his local church in Batu Pahat.

Tom's Post Commentary

Daniel, thanks for posting. I'm too young (32) to have gone through the days of Corel Ventura and Interleaf, but I asked an older colleague today if he'd heard of them. "Oh yes, I used to use Corel Ventura," he said. "It was like writing with an early version of Framemaker and a brick in your mouth. You had to specify everything in picas."

Daniel's historical tour of products raises an important question that never has a clear answer: Why do some tools succeed and others die?

"Marketing," my colleague replied. And then we talked about Word versus WordPerfect.

I had an online chat with another technical writer today and asked him the same question -- why do some tools succeed and others die? His reply:

I don't know if you could call it a "quality," but in this business it seems that first to market and most widely distributed is the major key to success. Obviously, as a tech writer, I recognize that usability plays a major part, but most businesses don't seem to get that.

For example, I asked an employee at a local electronics store why I could not purchase a DVR that his store used to carry. I wanted to dump my VCR for a hard drive, and I don't want to sign up for some service. The employee responded that too many of the DVR units were returned by users who could not use them. Therefore, the store is no longer selling this product.

Parenthetically, those large corporations selling the services have paid off retail chains to sell the services, not the DVR units. Did anyone learn anything from that (lack of usability)? I doubt it. The most definitive quote I heard a few years ago was allegedly uttered by a business owner who said, “ Why should I pay to provide customers with documentation? I already have their money.” Apparently, repeat business was not an issue, as this business owner opined that he would be long retired before he ran out of first time customers.

Now we're up to three answers: marketing, first in market, and perhaps usability. I would also add community to this list. Without a strong community of users, a product tends to wane. Even bad products can continue successfully if the user community is vibrant. Think Twitter.

A few months ago, I listened to a Quark presentation at Doc Train 2008. I didn't even know Quark was still a player, and yet their name appeared on all the conference bags. The presenter was explaining how through XML you could single source your documentation, or something like that. Is it too late for these old timers to get back in the game? Will tools always be in a constant state of flux, changing every 5 years?

Perhaps. I guess the point is not to be too invested in any tool. Learn the underlying technologies (e.g., CSS, XML, HTML) that the tool uses. If one day the tool you're using doesn't meet your needs, there are at least 20 more to choose from.

Finally, sometimes tools succeed or fail based on unpredictable conditions and factors. Scott Berkun's The Myths of Innovation explores why some ideas ignite and others don't. Often it has everything to do with timing. Sometimes the conditions are right, the users are there, and the need is paramount. Other times it's like launching a sailboat on a windless day.

For more information on tools, see the WritersUA list of tool resources. You can also see the Help Authoring Tools Matrix.

By the way, I have a small, informal tools survey in my sidebar (which is hardly representative of the great number of tools out there). But if you feel like participating, go for it.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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