February 27, 2006 Program Summary
Presentation and summary by Bruce Mills

Information Authoring:
Applications, Features and Futures

Speaker Bruce MillsOur February 27th event aimed to shed light on what's happening with major software company mergers and new industry standards, and how the latest trends are affecting our favorite software applications.

The purpose was to help technical communicators, from students to application developers, choose where to direct their time, energy, and dollars in acquiring or learning new authoring software.

In so doing, we gazed into the crystal ball at some of our long-standing design, layout, Help, and text processing favorites to find out where they appear to be heading.

The summary below contains the notes for the presentation slides.

Slide 1: Introduction

I am Bruce Mills, principal of Lone Pine Studio. I am an independent contractor in marketing, graphics, information design and content development and a former technology and product marketing executive. Since the early 1980s, I have refined my personal strategies for investing time, effort and dollars in productivity tools and technology. On behalf of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the STC and the greater community of information authoring professionals, I am sharing my perspective today on evaluating information authoring applications and current trends in technology and the software industry.

Disclaimer: This presentation and all of its content are purely the opinion of the presenter and are in no way intended as an endorsement or denigration of any particular product or organization. The presenter accepts no responsibility for the subsequent actions or decisions of attendees or the consequences of actions resulting from their interpretation of the content.

Slide 2: Where did my favorite app go?

If you ever relied an application like Aldus Persuasion, Cricket Graph, or more recently PageMaker or RoboHelp, you may an have awakened one day to discovered that your favorite product was going, going, gone!

Through acquisitions, mergers, failures, technology migration, and feature creep, the applications in which you have become a skilled expert are no more.

Slide 3: Panic!Man rowing away from sharks

Suddenly questions flood your mind...

  • How will I get my next job out?
  • What is my next best alternative application or method?
  • What is it going to cost me?
  • Will my current skills be transferable?
  • Should I focus on new products or emerging technologies?
  • What will give the best return on effort?
  • What will be most likely to ensure my professional future?
  • Next time, How can I avoid becoming an expert at using products that no longer exist?

Although you may have good reason to panic, here are a few things that I have learned over the years that may protect your investment in the future.

Slide 4: What is Job One?

What is Job One?

Doing the job that generates invoices or ensures that you won't be fired or laid off is always "Job One." "Job Two" is dealing with all of the other things that make the performance of Job One better.

If a tool doesn't effectively facilitate or enhance the performance of Job One or if Job Two becomes all-consuming, you probably shouldn't waste your time on it. No one wants to be an expert at Job Two if Job One goes away.

So, the first thing that needs to be determine is, exactly what is Job One.

  • What do you need to accomplish?
  • What application areas are most critical?
  • What are your biggest concerns?
  • What criteria should be considered in evaluating new applications?

Slide 5: Looking Ahead

Now that we know what Job One is and what our application requirements might be, here is what we're going to cover in the remainder of this presentation:

1. Criteria for evaluating applications
2. Industry and technology trends
3. A road map to the future

After our break we will consider some possible long-term winners and losers in landscape of information authoring tools.

Slide 6: Criteria for Evaluation

Weighing evaluation criteriaHow should we approach the challenge of evaluating new products so that we get the best return on out investment?

I have learned over the years that before investing my time, effort, and dollars in acquiring, learning and using a new software product, it must qualify according to my time-tested criteria for software viability.

Here are five dimensions for evaluating a products long term contribution to not only my productivity or marketability, but also to my accumulation of transferable knowledge.

Slide 7: Skill vs. Knowledge – Experience Building

Does learning a new product simply add another notch to our tool belt or does it expand our overall knowledge base?

Back in the early 1980s I worked with a lot of highly skilled people who were experts at producing spectacular typography on specific brands of typesetting equipment. By the late 90s all of these people were either out of work or performing jobs in which their typesetting skills were absolutely useless. Learning something about evolving technologies such as PostScript and desktop publishing might have been prudent.

Looking back, I said to myself, "skill dependent expertise is a risky and transitory asset if it is totally dependent on one proprietary product or technology." For this reason, one of the first things I look at is the extent to which the effort of learning contributes to transferable knowledge as well as meeting the more immediate demands of productivity.

Some applications that we might consider are highly specialized, targeting unique technical tasks. Some are more general purpose, addressing common tasks. On the surface, all are intended to increase productivity, in some cases by streamlining repetitive tasks, in others by offering previously unavailable capabilities.

If the tasks being targeted are product or vendor specific, they are vulnerable to obsolescence. If the skills required to use the product mask underlying technology or process, you become more vulnerable to the whims of the developer and market forces. In other words, you risk becoming an expert with a nonexistent product.

New publishing paradigmConversely, products that enable you to become more knowledgeable about underlying technology and processes, enable you to protect your investment in learning new skills.

For example, becoming an expert with a particular graphical HTML editing tool that masks the underlying properties and behaviors of HTML contributes to specific skill development and short term productivity but not to long-term knowledge of HTML, Internet standards or architectures. Acquiring knowledge as well as skill ensures transferability of skills in the future.

Consider the cook who relies on a particular brand of cake mix and its attached instructions rather than learning how a cake is made from scratch. If that particular brand of cake mix goes away, the cook will have to find another similar (perhaps inferior) product. The cook who knows how to make a cake can still make one (perhaps even superior) from raw ingredients.

Slide 8: Learning vs. Doing – Usability

What is the startup ROI on learning a new product?

Learning is part of the cost of transition. The more time spent learning, however, the longer it will take to get back to Job One. Some products are designed to hide complexity and prompt users at every turn. This may seem convenient and get you up to speed quickly but may ultimately be less productive in the long run. Other products may seem intimidating at first because they offer a lot of capabilities but employ methods that are somewhat cryptic. They may take longer to learn, but they may be a more productive tool in the long run.

Given the cost of acquiring and maintaining software, we must carefully evaluate the tradeoffs between getting up and running quickly at a lower productivity level vs. investing in learning/training first then implementing a more productive overall process later. Circumstances may dictate which approach is taken, however, documentation, tutorials, support and user feedback should be thoroughly evaluated with this in mind.

For instance, OpenOffice and Mozilla suites offer significant advantages over Microsoft suites as well as excellent documentation, and extensive training opportunities but may require a more significant up front investment in learning how to use them effectively, or unlearning how to use a familiar product. Yet in the long run they may be more productive and contribute more to our knowledge base than the old product.

MS Word as an example, has an overabundance of helpers, hinting, prompting and wizards. Many of these features make it easier to get started using the product and some even provide some useful automation. Many are simply a nuisance to expert users and turning them off is not always as easy as one might think.

On the other hand, more specialized production applications like QuarkXpress and Adobe InDesign, offer extensive keyboard based productivity shortcuts. These shortcuts take some time to assimilate but in the end subordinate the task of using the product to the tasks of Job One.

Slide 9: Productivity vs. Creativity – Staying Focused

How important is high productivity relative to extensive and perhaps esoteric creative options?

Competitive market forces drive proprietary application developers or continually add WOW! factor to flagship applications. While some such enhancements may be useful others may be used rarely. Esoteric effects and functions could be attractive if our primary focus is on developing creative content.

If our primary focus is on performing certain routine tasks as efficiently as possible, its just extra overhead and a potential loss of productivity. All information authors (content creators) do some of both. Most will say as in other fields, its 90% labor and 10% creativity. At what point do impressive features that are difficult to use or rarely called on become obstacles to Job One?

If you are working in an environment where the goal is uniqueness and productivity is of less priority, such specialized features may be an asset. Flash is perhaps an example of a product long on creative capability and short on productivity at least in the short term. Illustrator and Photoshop are good examples of software that balance creativity with productivity.

Slide 10: Big Company vs. Little Co. vs. No Company – Consider the Source

Who develops and maintains the software?

There are three general categories from which we can acquire software, assuming we don't want to create them ourselves:

1) Large vertically dominant software and technology developers

2) Smaller independent software developers

3) Open Source software organizations

Large vertically dominant vendors offer vertically integrated product lines that cover a broad range of related application areas. They are typically driven by marketing goals and competition to continually introduce new products, improve existing products and obsolete lagging products for maximum profitability and market share.

While larger companies put forth the illusion of continuity in development and imply a unified user environment this is not always the case. They are large complex organization with plenty of internal competition and are often lacking when it comes to internal communications. They are in the business of selling software annuities, support, and training.

This manifests itself in rapid obsolescence, poor quality assurance, inadequate documentation, and creeping incompatibility as product lines compete not only with outside competitors but with other internally competitive products to get to market faster.

Smaller independent developers typically offer leading edge or niche products that are below the radar of the vertical dominators. The risk with smaller independent developers, on the other hand, is whether or not they can sustain a product line, stay in business, and avoid being bought or forced out by the bigger fish.

I recently tried to update what I considered to be an excellent independent sound editing software product, CoolEdit, which initially cost $69, only to find that it is now Adobe Audition costing $359. At $69, the risk of it becoming an orphaned product was not so great. It was a good value while it lasted. At $359, I would have to think long and hard about maintaining this product going forward. Yet some of the best values can be found in products from independent developers, but careful scrutiny of demo software is essential.

An alternative route is Open Source products and technologies (if they offer appropriate features and capabilities for the task at hand), such as OpenOffice, the Mozilla suite and W3C language specifications. They are developed and maintained by students, professors, and engineers who are themselves users. In some cases, they are the product of government funded research paid for with taxpayer dollars. In other words, we already own them. They should be free.

New users can use and contribute to the continued development under GNU-GPL (GNU General Public License) public licensing agreements. See http://www.gnu.org/ and http://www.fsf.org.

The Internet itself is built upon Open Source technologies that are readily available in product form under GNU-General Public License.

Slide 11: Old vs. New – Transferability

How is this going to change my work environment and what is it going to cost to get back to where I was before?

Replacing or upgrading means making a transition from old to new. Whenever face the need to upgrade or replace software, we are faced with questions such as:

  • What are the risks, unexpected consequences?
  • Will it be compatible with other tools that I still depend on?
  • Will I have to upgrade other software and equipment?
  • Will I have to buy add-ons and extensions to get back where I was before?
  • What will it cost for future upgrades and maintenance?

And, when evaluating the product:

  • Does the product offer a clear future upgrade path?
  • Does it offer extendibility?
  • Is the released product reliable and complete?
  • Are there known deficiencies?
  • Is the documentation accurate and comprehensive?
  • Are current skills and knowledge transferable to the new product?
  • How long will it take to get back to where I was before?
  • Am I giving up anything critical?
  • Will new skills and knowledge be transferable to the next product?
  • Does it support my current peripherals and drivers?

While current trends toward the convergence of computing environments may reduce some of the issues related to software compatibility, availability and performance, operating systems continue to evolve, I/O standards continue to change, and the all pervasive influence of the Internet continue to introduce uncertainty.

Slide 12: Industry & Technology Trends

Industry & technology trends - a bit like FrankensteinWhat will they think of next?

Let's take a look at some trends in software development that will have a direct impact on our evaluations.

Slide 13: Webification

Where is information authoring headed?

The single most significant impact on the direction of information authoring software development is the success of the Internet. The all pervasive Internet has become the primary vehicle for business and personal communications as well as entertainment worldwide and is the primary target of the majority of authoring and content development applications.

Its existence is the result of several public domain and publicly licensed technologies and applications such as: W3C Standards, Open Source/GNU, XML, XHTML+Mobile, XSL/XSLT, SVG, PDF, SWF, Unicode (UTF-8, UTF-16), FTP/HTTP Protocols, client and server-side scripting (JavaScript, Perl, PHP), Java, and more. These technologies taken together comprise the Internet and constitute a distributed global application environment.

Because of its growing complexity and roll of specialized languages and code writing, there is a growing need for collaboration and integrated development capabilities.
That's "Webification."

Slide 14: New Publishing Paradigm

What does Webification mean to information authors and content creators?

The scope and spontaneity of the Internet and the portability of content have now given rise to significant changes in the definition of documents and publishing. Simultaneous cross-media publishing based on a single-source content model, the inclusion of dynamic and data-driven content, and international distribution have turned the concept of a traditional page-based document upside down. Content can now exist independently of any specific page-bound product or document format.

Slide 15: The Single-source Model

A diagram of the single source modelWhat is the single-source model for publishing?

Based largely on Open Source technology, Web-centric documents are in essence dynamic software containers for XML formatted content. And as a result, applications are increasingly becoming Web centric!

XML is at the heart of not only the single-source publishing model but for virtually all state-of-the-art data portability models. XML! XML! XML! Don't leave home without it.

Slide 16: Unixification – Platform Convergence

What is the role of platform architectures and operating systems in the viability of Webified software?

In order to be competitive in an Internet world, manufacturers must be able to take advantage of all the capabilities the Internet has to offer. That means some degree of standardization and utilization of the most viable technologies that support them.

The development of Windows NT (Unix-like) and now the recent move of Apple to a Unix-based OS running on an Intel processor complete the convergence of operating system to a UNIX-like platform. This is no surprise. The Internet was built on Unix-based computers. Because of its architecture it is particularly well suited to host Internet multi-tasking, server software, databases, and task-specific applications both locally and remotely.

The convergence of manufacturers on UNIX-like operating systems and the platform independent nature of the Internet application environment mean that software design can become more universal across platform boundaries. It also means that user skills and knowledge may become more portable.

Slide 17: Open Computing

Who owns the Internet application environment?

The Open Source movement has provided many of the key technologies that are the foundation of Internet computing. Not only are these technologies readily available to end users as standards, languages and products, they are supported or extended in some fashion by all major application developers.

XML is now supported by mainstream browser makers, Javascript (Mozilla/EMCAscript) is supported by Windows and most major publishing products including Adobe's CS2 suite and Flash.

XML with CSS and XML transforms can even be run directly in emerging server environments. Perl, Ruby and MySQL can be run as standalone applications on NT and Unix-flavor platforms. Any application that is not fully compliant with these standards or that does not support their use will be less useful in the Internet computing environment.

With platform convergence and the productization of Open Source technologies such as Apache2, a personal computer is no longer just a passive receiving node on the Internet Every personal computer can be equipped with a server, publishing technology and databases to become a powerful Internet computing platform and personal interactive information domain.

Slide 18: Market Forces – Vertical Dominance

How do market forces shape the technology landscape?

The Internet offers vast opportunities for the benefit of all users but also offers vast opportunities for profit to proprietary software vendors. While the Internet may be built around public domain technologies, sophisticated proprietary software can bestow significant productivity benefits and provide vertical integration and support for enterprise-scale customers.

As the application environment becomes more Webified, bigger companies seek to grow revenues by controlling ever larger vertical slices of the Internet, enterprise and consumer application markets.

As a result, bigger companies try to extend and create proprietary implementations of Open Source standards and we encounter engineered incompatibility between brands and product lines. If we commit to the product families of large vertical dominators we become more vendor/skill dependent, acquire less transferable knowledge and more vulnerable to change.

Slide 19: Polarization, Attraction & Competition

How does Open Source play into the competitive market landscape?

Bigger companies gobble up market share, try to diminish competition often along with innovation, product quality, and competitive pricing. Yet much of the core technology upon which the Internet is built is Open Source and in the public domain. In fact, this is where much of the innovation takes place that drives Webification.

Smaller independent developers who are more versatile are more likely to develop leading edge applications in niches that the bigger developers have not yet identified or will not approach because they may jeopardize current product lines. The smaller guys may break ground both in application design and in markets served. If they are successful, they will either be bought out or out-marketed by the big guys.

This creates a continuous cycle of innovation, adaptation and proprietorization between public domain organizations, independent developers and vertical dominators. At the balance point of this unstable triangular is Open Source which continues to be a beacon for future development trends.

Slide 20: Stratification, Collaboration & Integration

How are Webified applications evolving to deal with the increasing complexity of information/content content development tasks?

With increasing complexity comes increasing specialization. As the development environment for Web-centric content has become more like software development, technologists have sought to achieve rational separation of different tasks based on expertise. The result is a move toward stratification in the technology and in authoring and development software.

Remember our earlier example of the typesetter? How many of us here would consider themselves typesetters? Yet it is very likely that each of us performs the roll of a typesetter every day.

Typesetting is a level of functionality that is now built in to almost every product we use. Many of us may not consider ourselves to be programmers yet if we build Web pages in applications like DreamWeaver we are generating code.

While some of us may try to wear only one hat, we often perform a variety of different rolls whether we know it or not. The door should be open to operating on as many levels as necessary without extensive upgrading or add-ons.

Increasing complexity may also mean working in teams, possibly in remote locations. Webified application environments must offer a means for collaboration and process control as well as the ability to seamlessly integrate the large scale projects. Hence the recent proliferation of software "suites" with collaboration and project management capabilities.

The meshing of content creation with development activities means that applications may have support for integrated development tools such as code views, code references, code libraries, context highlighting, script and code assistance and debugging as well as text editing, graphics and media.

Slide 21: Features and Futures – Meta Software

Does it walk like a duck?

The future of information authoring and content creation is being driven by the success of the Internet, technology standardization (W3C compliance) and the Open Source movement.

With the prospect of every computer and every mobile device being connected through a vast distributed application environment, content creation is no longer an isolated task performed by subject matter experts. It is a complex collaborative development environment with vague boundaries between authoring and development.

Information authoring applications are becoming "meta" software. Software for creating software as well as content. Going forward, applications of choice will support this trend.

If its not "Webified" its probably not worth investing your time, effort and dollars. You'll be right back at this same decision point again in no time.

Slide 22: Roadmap to the Future

So, here are a dozen or so tips for deciding where to invest your effort so that you get the greatest return on your investment and will ensure that you build transferable knowledge as well as proficiency.

Slides 23-26: Rules for the Road

Road map to the future1. Define Job #1. Content creator, producer, developer, system administrator…?

2. Learn as much as possible about emerging technologies and trends driving your primary application environment.

3. Analyze and document your work environment, your requirements, and your expectations.

4. Evaluate new tools in terms of the effort invested in skills vs. contribution to core transferable knowledge.

5. Consider transferability of skills and compatibility with your current environment. Will you have to upgrade other tools and equipment?

6. Evaluate products in terms of the Usability ROI — learning vs. doing. Checkout the documentation first!

7. Consider production vs. creative tradeoffs

8. Evaluate your needs in terms of vertical integration and support vs. independent or Open Source alternatives.

9. Look for ‘Webified’ architectures and features that support Open Source and emerging standards (XML).

10. Evaluate features and upgrade paths for an appropriate task stratification architecture. All-in-one or expensive add-ons?

11. Get first hand feedback from peers or peer journals — not from data sheets or sales literature.

12. Avoid surprises. Have a transition plan for implementation — parallel systems.

13. Don’t use new products or technologies on a mission critical deadline.

14. Try to avoid 1.0 and X.0 releases.

Slides 28: Winners & Losers

Please see the PDF version of the slide presentation for details on this section.

Speaker photograph provided by SLO STC; others are images created by Bruce Mills

Information Authoring:
Applications, Features and Futures
Date: Monday evening, February 27, 2006

Bruce Mills, B.F.A., M.B.A. is the principal of Lone Pine Studio (http://lonepinestudio.com) in Paso Robles, providing graphic design, Web design and development, illustration, documentation, technical publishing, marketing, and business consulting to clients in SLO County and beyond.

Bruce has evaluated, used, developed, created, and marketed computer graphic systems and software since 1979 holding a series of creative and executive positions with training, communications, marketing and manufacturing organizations. Bruce has been an independent contractor and consultant since 1998.


“Information Authoring: Applications, Features, and Futures helped us gaze into the crystal ball at some of our long-standing design, layout, Help, and text processing favorites to find out where they appear to be heading.

In the last few years, we've seen many products evolve and devolve, as major software companies merged and new industry standards emerged. For example, open source standards and "Webification" are rapidly changing the character of software and content development. At this timely event, we learned:

  • Whether you should you invest in learning application skills or technology-based knowledge
  • How open source standards, globalization, and other drivers are pushing software onto the Web
  • Why “creeping incompatibility” and obsolescence make it hard to stay ahead of the game
  • What's happening on the new technology and product development frontiers
  • Future trends that will make some applications winners and some losers in the areas of document authoring, graphics, document production, Internet content creation, Help tools, and accessory tools


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