DITA XML is a form of structured content that is optimized to create, reuse, translate, and publish documentation quickly by using topics and maps. DITA XML is also a community maintained open standard.
There’s a lot of unpack from that definition, so we’re going to dissect it into a series of smaller questions:
What is DITA XML?
If you feel like you already have a good conceptual grasp of DITA, read about what it can actually do for you!
First, let’s start from the top. DITA XML is a form of structured content, which begs the question:
What Is Structured Content?
We’re all familiar with content. Content is everywhere. It’s everything you read, listen to, watch, etc. Content is how we communicate ideas to one another.
Content is communicated through various mediums to take ideas in our minds and transmit them to other people. For most of human history, we would do this by speaking to one another. Today, we use images, videos, written words, podcasts, VR, AR, voice assistants, and more. Ultimately though, the goal is the same; to get an idea from one person’s mind into another.
Structured content is content that follows the rules of a standard (we’ll talk more about standards in a moment). These rules establish a consistent framework that enables applications and systems to interact with content in helpful ways. In other words, these rules allow the technologies we use to communicate our ideas to understand us better. Because human words are messy to machines.
These rules give systems and applications a guide for how to interpret and leverage content. Typically, structured content uses tags to identify types of content. The most popular example of this is HTML. HTML uses tags to tell systems how to display our content in our internet browser.
The reason these systems need rules and tags is because our human language is nuanced and complex. Different people, in different contexts, use different words, in different ways.
These tags communicate how the system should interpret the messy-human-words. For example, you can think of these tags like facial expressions when talking to other people. The same word or phrase should be interpreted differently based on the facial expression that accompanies it.
If you ask a partner how they’re feeling and they respond:
“I’m fine 😊,” with a smile and bright eyes, that’s good.
“I’m fine 😔,” with a wistful sigh and a downward glance, you know they’re masking some discontent.
And if they say, “I’m fine 😠,” with a glare and a frown, you should probably apologize for whatever you did and back away… Slowly.
This is incredibly important and if you walk away from this post having only learned one thing, let it be this:
Structured Content beats unstructured every single time.
Ok, let’s recap. Structured content is content that follows rules of a standard. These rules provide a consistent way for systems and applications to interpret our messy-human-words with the aid of tags. Unstructured content, like typical document or text editors, lack these tags and rules.
Where do these “rules” of a standard come from?
Let’s talk about open standards.
What Is a Standard?
A standard is the collection of rules of the structured content language. The rules are crucial. If you play baseball, you have rules. These rules are important because they tell you how to play the game.
3 strikes: you’re out.
However, what if you play another team and they have different rules?
5 strikes: you’re out. This is a problem.
The standard ensures that everyone is utilizing the structure in the same way just like a rule book ensures that all the teams within a league follow the same rules. This consistency is crucial. For a system or an application to interact with your content, not only do you need structure, but you need to use the same structure that the system is programmed to interpret. The content creator and the content interpreter need to use the same structure. Thus, the standard ensures that everyone is using the same