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Re: 10 reasons for moving away from DITA

2 Mar 2022
Read time: 11 minute(s)
I'm following Tom Johnson @tomjohnson on Twitter and so should you for the very interesting articles related to technical documentation. One of his recent posts reminded us about the 10 reasons for moving away from DITA article he wrote about 7 years ago so I re-visited the article and I wanted to reply to each of the points he makes in the 10 reasons to move away from DITA section, 7 years after his original post:
1. DITA doesn't easily integrate into existing web frameworks.
I think the DITA to Markdown transformation developed by Jarno Elovirta (which is freely available in the DITA Open Toolkit) has opened the possibility of using static web site generators. Here is an article I wrote where I investigated using the MKDocs static site generator:
Publishing DITA Content Using the MKDocs Web Site Generator.
2. DITA doesn't easily integrate with JavaScript libraries.
Again, once you can publish DITA to Markdown, you can use the existing static web site generator infrastructure.
3. I never bought into DITA's information typing model.
I partially agreed, as most writers who are not externally constrained by the company or by some publishing customization to use explicit topic types (me included) would use the base DITA topic type for all of their work.
4. Writing in XML is a chore.
For me, when writing in Markdown, adding paragraphs is easy, but when adding links, image references, or tables, it is a chore. It depends on what you are comfortable with and what you use every day. If I were to write Markdown every day, I would start to remember how I should encode a link and consider it a natural way of doing things. But indeed, using a plain text editor to write in XML is more difficult, in general. With a visual editing tool, it is much easier.
5. Open-source DITA solutions develop too slowly.
If we are discussing storage, DITA content (the content of this blog for example) can be stored in Git repositories and used with regular Git client tools: DITA For Small Technical Documentation Teams.
If we are discussing the publishing ecosystem, once you can publish DITA to plain HTML or Markdown using the DITA Open Toolkit, you can benefit of all web based tools available for Markdown and plain HTML content.
6. You can't easily customize the output.

Again, it depends on what you are comfortable with. You can use Markdown content produced from DITA XML content with static web site generators like MKDocs or Jekyll. Indeed, if you use (for example) DITA to produce Oxygen WebHelp, although most of the customizations are made with CSS, you might still need to use XSLT for more advanced customizations. But as someone who spent hours trying to understand why Hugo does not properly follow links between articles, there is a learning curve for anything, and every static web site generator out there has its own configuration capabilities that need to be learned and explored. Also, once you get comfortable with a certain publishing process, you naturally consider that one easy and the others more difficult.

About publishing DITA to PDF, the default customization capabilities for the classic DITA to PDF publishing require knowledge of both XSLT and XSL-FO. This is why we invested in the Oxygen Chemistry CSS-based PDF processor, to be able to style the content using CSS and then use the CSS both for WebHelp and PDF publishing: https://styles.oxygenxml.com/.
7. DITA doesn't integrate well with other non-DITA content.

DITA content integrates well with Markdown. We contacted Tom less than a year ago to again explore Oxygen's capabilities with a docs-as-code approach and his well thought out and complete article about combining DITA XML with Markdown is available here: https://idratherbewriting.com/learnapidoc/pubapis_oxygenxml.html.

In recent Oxygen versions, we also explored integrating other file types like Word or HTML directly with DITA projects: https://www.oxygenxml.com/doc/ug-editor/topics/dynamically_convert_word_excel_html_markdown_to_dita.html.

8. Everything I wanted to do with DITA, I can do with Markdown and Liquid on Jekyll.
I am not familiar with Liquid, but I agree there are indeed ways that you can also reuse content with Markdown, not part of a standard but part of how a particular framework decided to support such extensions, making the solution 100% not portable when switching between web-based frameworks. I do think there are more powerful ways to check if the structure is correct with XML-based standards using Schematron. The Oxygen Validate and check for completeness action also does a lot of consistency checks.
An article about thoughts on Markdown: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2022/02/thoughts-on-markdown/.
9. Innovation with DITA is too reliant on vendors.
Once you can obtain plain HTML and plain Markdown from DITA XML content, you can benefit from all the tools created to process and display HTML and Markdown. The web tools publishing space is much more dynamic than the DITA XML publishing space. For me, looking into the web tools space from the outside, it's in a constant turmoil of innovation, which brings stress to any web developer who might want to choose a framework since there are so many frameworks developed over night while re-inventing solutions for the same concepts in different ways that you end up not knowing what to choose and with the Markdown content containing various framework-specific extensions not being able to easily switch between them. It's like tearing down the entire house and re-inventing it each day and sometimes forgetting about various problems that have been fixed in the previous iteration. While Markdown might now be the future winning format when it comes to web tools, some innovators want to switch to JSON even for writing web content: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2022/02/thoughts-on-markdown/.
10. DITA is the wrong language for the API doc space.
I would like to further explore using DITA XML in the API docs space, that's for sure. Now days, I think by "API Docs", most people would be referring to Swagger, OpenAPI documentation, mostly API documentation for web-based end points. I experimented a bit using widdershins to generate documentation from API docs to Markdown and then converting this Markdown content to DITA XML, converting the DITA content to WebHelp Responsive. Also, I'm not sure if the API docs world is larger than web-based end points using REST, but there are other programming languages as well but probably most API documentation is about accessing server end points now days.

So these are my brief remarks on Tom's 10 reasons to move away from DITA article written some 7 years ago. Any feedback is welcomed as usual.