XML Content Authoring For the Rest of Us

Long viewed as difficult and arcane, the world of XML authoring is changing with dozens of vendors and new, lightweight authoring tools.

XML authoring has long been viewed as difficult and arcane, and best left to specialists using complex thick-client software. Indeed, in some markets and applications, such as developing technical documentation for aircraft or automobiles, today's preferred XML tools look and act much like the SGML authoring tools of 1992. The same products, including Adobe FrameMaker, Arbortext Epic and Blast Radius XMetaL, still dominate.

[ THE Q.T. ]
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But the world of XML authoring is changing. Where once there were only a handful of vendors and tools, now there are dozens. There are lightweight XML authoring tools that install as browser plug-ins and controls. Newer companies such as Ektron and Ephox were the first to bring these tools to market, prompting established vendors including Arbortext and Blast Radius to develop thin-client tools as well.

Browser-based tools bring a different look, feel and user model to authoring. Instead of the tag- and menu-heavy interface of the thick clients, the thin clients look and behave like simple word-processing apps. Tagging is often accomplished through a small palette of styles and font changes. Thus, a simple document like a letter, properly formatted, can easily be tagged with the right XML elements and attributes.

Another important change in XML authoring has been the growing XML capabilities of Microsoft Word. Beginning with Office 2000 and strengthening with Office 2003, the underlying data structure of Word embraced XML. Programmers can use the Microsoft Office Word 2003 XML Toolbox to let users create, edit and save Word documents as XML. Not surprisingly, third-party developers are using this capability to develop intriguing products. One such offering is Content Mapper, from consultant Information Mapping. This Word-based tool supports XML authoring and connects to a number of popular content managers. Just as the thin-client tools offer limited features, Content Mapper simplifies Word's menu system to give the author fewer formatting choices — and fewer chances to invalidate the underlying XML.

The final important new thread in XML authoring is the emergence of XML-based electronic forms, or eForms. There are dozens of vendors in this arena, but the 800-pound gorillas are Microsoft with InfoPath, Adobe with Acrobat eForms and IBM with Workplace Forms. These products let developers create electronic forms that capture data in the context of XML metadata. IBM adheres most closely to the W3C's XForms standard, while Adobe is using its Acrobat PDF technology and Accelio (formerly JetForms) technology it acquired in 2002. Microsoft's InfoPath requires developers to use a lot of Microsoft-specific controls and apparatus to build and deploy eForms solutions.

Together, these new approaches to XML authoring have expanded the options for developers and users. The choices — from browser-based controls to customized versions of Microsoft Word to highly designed XML eForms — are opening up new possibilities for the creation and use of intelligent and reusable structured content.

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