In this exclusive interview with Gary Schaffer of Inmedius, Scott Abel asks the president of the technical communication software provider about his company’s recent acquisition of the DITA Storm wiki, what he thinks about the role of rich media, and the importance of content quality.

TCW: Gary, tell our readers a little about yourself and your company, Inmedius.

Gary: Inmedius is a company with a long tradition of bringing innovative product to the marketplace. We were founded out of Carnegie Mellon University in 1995. Our primary market up until 2001 was in the governmental services market. We are really the classic story of a technology company originally government-focused that is now more commercially-focused. We have found that our approach to solving customer problems is unique and can be made into standard commercial products.

As for me, I’m an entrepreneur with a bent towards commercializing technology through product innovation and product management.

TCW: I know that a lot of our readers are interested in finding ways to improve the quality of their content. I also know that Inmedius has been working on a new suite of tools designed to help managers manage their information assets and human resources. Can you tell us a little about Horizon?

Gary: Horizon is an XML content management system supporting industry technical documentation standards, including Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA). It facilitates the professional management of content, delivering the tools and information to efficiently manage a technical documentation publications operation. It’s a product we developed based on what we learned from the S1000D marketplace. We listened very closely to our customers, and most of them said, “Hey, we love what you have done to help us solve our S1000D issues, now go help us solve the rest of our technical content publication issues.” Many of those issues are really management issues. Products like Horizon are needed because most companies have not invested heavily in solving the management issues that plague the technical publications marketplace. They have been coasting along, getting by without really managing the content life cycle. We will certainly change the game with this product.

TCW: That’s really interesting stuff. I think you’re on to something. Content quality and metrics have been ignored for far too long. I recently wrote an article (PDF) about this topic for TC World. The issue is so important, we’re making it one of our focus areas at The Content Wrangler for 2008.

One a different note, we hear through the grapevine that your firm is also involved in integrating wiki technology and DITA into your product mix. Can you tell us a little about what’s happening on this front?

Gary: Well, you got me on that one! Actually we will announce shortly the acquisition of DITA Storm – the DITA wiki! This will give Inmedius an easy-to-use, web-based authoring system that can be built right into Horizon, giving a 100% browser based DITA solution. We feel this approach is superior to what is available in the market today. In fact, you can expect us to further “change the game” to allow for the quicker adoption of the DITA standard.

TCW: It’s about time someone integrated a wiki with DITA into a product mix. Good job! But, believe it or not, many of our readers may not really understand wikis. Can you help our readers understand the difference between a wiki and Wikipedia, for instance? There seems to be some hesitance adopting wiki technology because there is an incorrect belief that wikis are some kind of editing free-for-all. What kinds of access controls can be put in place to protect content in your new wiki and can you talk to us a little about the kinds of features that are included in today’s wikis that are similar to traditional authoring tools (i.e. WYSIWYG editor, role based access, spell check, etc.)

Gary: That’s an interesting question, as I do not get “wound around the wheel” with these types of distinctions. From my perspective, DITA Storm is a browser-based authoring system, particularly usable by non-XML experts. Guys like you and me, engineers and customer support or subject matter experts can begin to write DITA without becoming a XML guru. Isn’t that a change of pace? Imagine, a user experience that takes a complex problem and makes it easy to accomplish. For example, building a webpage: MySpace did it. Facebook has done it. Adoption of standards are tied closely to the ease of which the standard can be adopted. We will prove this in the next few months.

TCW: So, now that DITA Storm is part of the Inmedius suite of content tools, what types of uses do you see for this technology? Why would an organization want a wiki based on DITA?

Gary: Once again, the question is more like, why would an organization want an easy to use DITA authoring and publishing environment?  The fact remains that most documentation to this day sits in Microsoft Word. I know that’s a dirty little secret that most vendors do not want to talk about. Our goal is to change that. We will give users an easy-to-use experience where they will be writing DITA, thinking DITA and ultimately adopting this standard simply by using a good software tool. This will not be a specialist tool, I think that is ground covered well by Adobe and PTC.

TCW: So, hypothetically, the content created in the DITA wiki is transferable (interoperable) with other authoring tools that support DITA. So, it seems that this new addition to your product roster will support remote authoring of content in a web-based environment, and that the content would be mobile (i.e. could be moved from the wiki to a traditional XML authoring environment) should an organization desire to do so. Is this correct? And, if so, what are some applications for this type of technology? How do you see your customers us-ing this new tool?

Gary: It’s certainly a game changer. I think the marrying of DITA Storm with Horizon and the upcoming additions to the product, in particular, the translation memory feature will make this a unique product. I can imagine multinational firms having subject matter experts doing the first draft, in DITA! No more notes in non-XML standard! This content can then be passed to authors for further refinement. Some documents can come directly from Engineering in DITA. Q & A would be an example or Frequently Asked Questions. This will breakdown the barrier between the knowledge and the writer. After all, this process is already taking place, this will just make it more efficient. I can also envision DITA-based websites. I have seen some fantastic examples from Alex, creator of DITA Storm. This would be added bonus; DITA based topics automatically creating websites dynamically. The future is very bright with this type of technology!

TCW: Web 2.0 and Semantic Web technologies are hot right now. We’re seeing rich media also playing an increasingly important role. Can you share with our readers what you think technical documentation creation and management will look like five years from now? And, what types of new services might we see that incorporate rich media and user-generated content?

Gary: Wow, I’m not the oracle. I can only see what’s directly in front of me. DITA is a fantastic standard and we intend to break down the barriers to its further adoption. In terms of authoring, Roland Barthes proclaimed the “death of the author”. I’m certain he had no clue about Web 2.0. But he makes an important point here, the nature of authoring and interpretation has changed. In this new world, one can no longer “know” the background of the author in order to “get the meaning”. In this new world of Web 2.0 everyone is an author. Why not have software that enables this new reality? And the term authoring now must be changed, it more a question of creating; creating text, music, graphics, design, concepts in the most abstract manner, creating objects.

TCW: Assuming that rich media becomes the base standard for user interaction with information, how might your products help technical communicators manage these rich media assets?

Gary: That’s a good question. Because this new world means there is no central authority. Now, this may be a desired outcome, but its not desirable when you are a manufacturer and need to write a users manual. What I can imagine is a much more inclusive authoring process. Inclusive of designers, engineers, product support, etc. In fact, I could imagine a world where they could write the first version of many texts. These texts would already be in XML, making it easier and faster than the current process. The author today, will need to be a keen editor in the future.

TCW: Some of our readers are still struggling with the is-sue of adopting structured XML content. They don’t always see the impact this paradigm shift is having. What are some useful things we can do today because of structured XML content that we couldn’t easily do otherwise?

Gary: Let me state from the start, “I didn’t get it, either”. My background was not in technical pubs or XML. In a cynical way, I have thought that XML was created to keep employment for those who understand it!  In my mind its really a question of barriers. It’s too hard to adopt XML because it requires specialist tools and specialist knowledge. DITA Storm will change that. Content really needs to be liberated. I think the DITA standard is a good start if it does not go down the path of other standards that become too complex over time. The shift will not be seen in version one of technical publication. The shift becomes apparent after revision three, and after an author wants to use sections of a document for another document. Or to send out the document for translation, and then reuse some portions for another document. The more reuse and revision, the more interesting XML becomes. There are circumstances where it may not make sense. I am not 100% XML all the time. For example, this is not written in XML. Should we ask ourselves, Why? These are the barriers Inmedius will break down. This is our challenge.

TCW: Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us today. We really appreciate it.

Gary: Thanks Scott, for giving us a chance to share with your readers a little information about our firm and the tools we’re developing for technical communicators and tech pubs managers. If you’re readers would like to learn more about our firm, they can do so by visiting our website.