What is “DITA for the Web?”

“Does Don Day know about DITA?” That’s a skills endorsement question that is likely to pop up if you visit my profile page at the business-oriented social service, LinkedIn. Beyond that quixotic thought, consider the more important question: “What does Don Day think about DITA?” In fact, what I can tell you about DITA may help you understand this XML markup standard in a much different way than you may have expected.

Mainstream DITA

The DITA XML standard (DITA stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture) has become a popular markup standard for any company that needs to manage content as a corporate asset. They see information as having business value, just like programming code, customer lists, or other software assets. Content as business collateral requires reviews, translations, sign-offs, and scheduled integration with product release and fulfillment operations. It must enable producing new revisions or deliverable formats at any time. Often, the content and the process must track to quality and operational certifications. These requirements describe a fairly well understood framework consisting of XML-based end-to-end tools with a workflow orchestrated by a back-end Content Management System (or some equivalent process, whether manual or automated) and one or more production/fulfillment systems.

As pervasive as that particular use case may be, it is by no means the only manner in which the DITA standard can be used. The DITA standard appeals to some companies because of its ubiquity (it has large communities of users, trainers, and providers of tools and services) and because of its extensible architecture (its base design can be forked for new topic types or extended for greater structural and semantic specificity, all with guaranteed fall-back behavior in editors and processing toolsFootnote 1).

Non-mainstream DITA

In that vein, I’m aware of DITA having been adopted in these non-mainstream ways:

  • As a transport format in help authoring tools
  • As a report generation format for database query results
  • As a formal and extensible way to represent business rules (for example, driving review workflows)
  • To gather any kind of written contribution in a format from which more intentional use can be made
  • Using the architecture itself to convert existing DITA topics to more semantically-enriched document types (the principles of generalization and respecialization)

But for me the most interesting, non-mainstream use of DITA is its potential as a standard form of XML behind many kinds of writing or text-based application on the Web, replacing or extending HTML as the de facto source format. I call this usage DITA for the Web.

Defining DITA for the Web

DITA for the Web is the solution to a big problem that HTML content strategists are having lately. In some ways, it is much broader than what DITA has been used for before. To understand the What of DITA for the Web, we should really begin with the Why of the idea.

DITA for the Web follows the “X for the Y” naming pattern, which we can parse in this way:

  • Y presents a need or challenge that can be solved by X,
  • But solving Y with X will take some creative thinking, even if the eventual solution will seem obvious to all.

The “X for the Y” pattern gave birth to an air conditioner for your car, a stereo for your pocket, and hundreds of other inventions that we encounter every day. So how does this relate to why we need DITA for the Web?

As hinted at, the Web faces some serious challenges right now as developers and content strategists try to figure out how to meet consumers’ demands for immediate access to relevant content on any device they choose. Various projects have pioneered approaches to the problem with some success (for example, the Adaptive Content and Responsive Design strategies for Web content), but frankly, none have succeeded well enough to suggest a sustainable best practice or repeatable model.

Coming back to DITA’s popularity with the Technical Publishing community, the DITA standard has become practically synonymous with technical publishing, whereas it can be much more than that. To truly understand how DITA applies to problems like web content delivery, we need to think a little bit outside the box.

Teasing out the meaning

The beauty of the long tail.

I have been working on different aspects of “DITA for the Web” since I first began developing an IBM-internal project called the IBM DITA Wiki starting in 2008. These are some of the long-tail use cases that I have explored and presented on in my journey to understand where the DITA standard fits on the Web and how we can improve our use of it there:

To round out this perspective with how others have also been promoting “DITA on the Web” using responsive application designs, I recently began hosting the mobiledita.com “responsive DITA” showcase.

I plan to reprise the lessons from these explorations in this “DITA for the Web” category on the DITA per Day blog. These topics should be an authoritative resource on what DITA is capable of doing in a direct-to-the-Web context, and help to discern some best practices for both application designers and for those who create DITA content for direct-to-the-Web use (generally mapping one managed “page” of DITA content to one Web-based address or role in a Web application). In effect, the idea embraces the blog and wiki concept of a single database managing the viewed content directly via dynamic rendering rather than the conventional source CMS behind a firewall with static copies of content served from distribution databases

By keeping that distinction in mind, we can have separate discussions about “DITA for Tech Pubs” where the appropriate platforms for that use case are already customary and necessary. As I started off explaining, these are the cases of using desktop- or Web-based tools for managing DITA materials in a controlled workflow for publication to particular conditions and audiences, usually as PDF or HTML deliverables that are often installed with code or served from infocenters or help systems, and less often as standalone Web resources.

Note that the web site for my consulting company, Contelligence Group LLC, is in fact based on the expeDITA toolkit as the live-rendering platform for DITA content. We can look forward to exploring the use of expeDITA in other web sites, wikis, blogs, forums, web applications, and CMS content browsers.


Footnote 1
“Fall-back behavior” refers to DITA’s extension mechanism being based on subclassing of existing elements and their content models, which means that the styling or processing of any newly specialized markup will always fall back dependably to that of its ancestor class in the absence of more specific styling/processing. In effect, the DITA architecture enables reuse of both existing design patterns and existing processing for any new specializations.