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Imagine if you could only drive your car on roads made by your car company, and if you wanted to travel outside their system, you had to spend weeks or even years making costly and painful modifications to your vehicle. We would never tolerate that, so why do we allow so many software vendors to do this to us?

Buyers of computer software systems have to be keenly aware of the potential for “vendor lock-in.” Competing software packages often take very different approaches to solving similar business problems, with different user interfaces and workflows. They require a great deal of training and can be very hard to replace without a lot of pain.

Even worse than having to learn a new tool is having your data/content tied to a specific system because the vendor uses proprietary code or file formats that only work with their products, severely limiting the value of any content produced in that system. That’s why more companies are choosing open solutions to create and manage their mission-critical information.

DITA = Open Standard. DITA CCMS? Depends on your vendor.

One of the great strengths of DITA XML is that it is an open content standard supported by a large and active community of trade associations, annual conferences and independent consultants. Software vendors like easyDITA are always working to anticipate the needs of technical writers, documentation managers, and information architects and improve the tools for authoring, managing, publishing and translating content.

Because of DITA’s standard architecture, all these tools should be “interoperable.” In other words, you should be able to export your content from one tool and import it into another. However, some DITA component content management systems (CCMS) contain proprietary extensions that make it hard to switch vendors or use your information in other systems. Vendor lock-in can prevent you from taking advantage of new technologies as they become available (automated translation management, dynamic web output).

Proprietary extensions can be in the form of markup added to the XML, or changes to naming conventions for @hrefs or IDs. Some tools require that you conform to their schemas, which not only affects interoperability but can also limit how closely you can align the content model with your business needs.

Four tests to tell that your content is NOT locked in to a single DITA CCMS

  • Validity: Your content is valid and conforms to the same DTD or schema on your file system as it does in the CMS. This is true regardless of the DTD or schema you’ve chosen.
  • Interoperability: Your content works on a file system the same way it does in the CMS – links resolve, file paths and names are human readable and reflect the same structure as in the CMS.
  • Round-tripping: You can download your content to your file system, make changes, and re-upload it into the CMS with no issues. In addition, you can download a map, with all of its required content (topics, media) as a single package, without having to download each item one at a time.
  • Publishing: If you’re using a stand-alone publishing system that will run on your desktop (like the DITA Open Toolkit), it runs the same on your desktop as it does in the CMS.

Will your CCMS comply with the new ISO standard?

The upcoming ISO 26531 standard for technical documentation management includes several DITA CCMS requirements that are intended to prevent vendor lock-in. Section 12.1.1 forbids “adding vendor specific information that may affect the ability of other systems to validate, transform, or integrate the content.” Section 12.2.2 spells out the import/export requirements that will “preserve the organizational structure of imported components.” and “support bulk export.”


Thank you Sarah O’Keefe for suggesting that we write this blog post and helping guide its creation.

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