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Don’t Wait for the DITA 2.0 Standard to Migrate to DITA

I and some of my colleagues have run into a few people at recent conferences who have been asking me how soon DITA 2.0 was coming and whether they should hold off moving to DITA until its arrival. While I understand where this type of question is coming from, it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding as to what DITA is, how long it takes for a standard to be developed, and that a new standard is not the same as a new software version. This is also likely due to the inadvertently poor communication from those within the DITA development process (which includes myself) as to how a new, open standard is made. Simply put, do not hold off on the release of DITA 2.0 if you are contemplating moving to DITA. It will be a long wait, and you will in fact be much further ahead by adopting DITA 1.3 now than if hold off however long for the release of DITA 2.0.

Why Using DITA 1.x Now Makes Sense

The people who have been asking whether they should hold off migrating to DITA until v.2.0 is released are equating the release of a standard to that of a software release. Don’t confuse the release of the standard with a software upgrade! DITA 2.0 will not render previous content developed using DITA 1.x automatically obsolete.

When a new piece of software is released, the new features and functions it usually renders previous versions of that same software obsolete. That will not be the case when DITA 2.0 is released. Users of previous versions of DITA are not obligated to move to the new version, and it may well be that depending on the circumstances of specific technical documentation teams, there may be no compelling business argument to move to DITA from whatever version of DITA 1.x they are currently using. Waiting several years for the DITA 2.0 specification means that your documentation team and company are missing out on the many benefits of using DITA in the interim. So, if you are looking to move to DITA, there is no time like the present to start.

The most typical reasons that I have across for moving to DITA are the same regardless of whether we are talking about DITA 1.x or 2.0. They are:

  • The need to reduce operational costs
  • A requirement to decrease localization costs 
  • A need to improve content quality
  • The company has moved to Agile (and the documentation team needs too as well).

There are a few other reasons that come up, but of these reasons and more are used as cost-effective arguments for process change based on DITA (and often with a CCMS as well). (If you are interested understanding more about when using DITA becomes cost-effective, see my recent presentation on this subject).

Working with DITA 1.x will enable documentation teams to gain the benefits of using structured, reusable content now. There are almost 700 companies that are using DITA worldwide, and who are already gaining the benefits producing better quality content in a cost-effective manner. While DITA 2.0 will not be backwards-compatible with DITA 1.x, the fundamentals of DITA will remain the same, it’s just that there may be some new ways of getting to the same goals.

Where DITA Comes From

Creating an open standard is not a quick process, and should definitely not be confused with that of software development environment. In the case of the DITA standard, it is mediated by OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), which is a “nonprofit consortium that drives the development, convergence and adoption of open standards for the global information society”. Within OASIS, the driving force for the development of the DITA standard is the DITA Technical Committee (DITA TC), which holds weekly conference-call meetings. To have a say in the development of DITA or any of the other open standards OASIS is host to—such as DocBook, Legal XML, Open Document, or XLIFF to name a few—you or the company you work for must be a member. Many of the people on the DITA Technical Committee are from small consulting firms, and have opted for an annual membership which costs $335 US per year. For those attending from a sponsoring firm, there is a sliding scale for the membership fee depending on the size of the company and the level of membership chosen. For small companies this annual fee starts at $3,625 US for basic Contributor status and up to $50,000 US for a large company seeking a Foundational membership level. Regardless of cost, the key thing is that you must be a member of OASIS in order to attend the regular DITA TC meetings and become a voting member of the DITA TC.

Why It Takes a Long Time to Devise an Open Standard

One reason why nobody should wait for the release of DITA 2.0 before adopting DITA is that it takes a long time to develop an open standard. It took roughly five years for the DITA TC to develop DITA 1.3 after issuing DITA 1.2. This may seem like a long time, but this is more understandable when you have a better understanding of the processes involved.

Once you are a member of OASIS and attend the regular weekly, one-hour meetings of the DITA TC, you can have a say in the development of the next version of DITA. But that is not all that the DITA TC works on. The first major task of the DITA TC shortly after the release of the DITA 1.3 standard was to develop an erratum for that standard, fixing typos, minor errors of omission, clarifying language and fixing examples for features that may not have been wholly clear. This process took the better part of a year. This work is ongoing, with a second erratum planned for the DITA 1.3 specification. (Note that these errata do not introduce any changes to the existing standard, but instead are designed to clarify or correct descriptions of features as they were originally intended).

Another reason for the lengthy time in development from DITA 1.2 to DITA 1.3 was a greater emphasis on an improved process for vetting additions and changes to the standard, something which continues with DITA 2.0.

A “triage” process has been set up for vetting features for DITA 2.0, consisting of three stages for a proposal must be worked through in order to make it to the next meeting. The way the process works, initial ideas for changes/additions are proposed along with a use case and their merits are discussed at the DITA TC meetings. If a proposal succeeds it moves to the next stage of the process, where a designated lead will flesh out the details of the proposal. At some point in the future, these proposals will be circulated to the members and then discussed further. Many points need to be taken into consideration, such as how it will work, the processing impact it may have, its usability and more. If it passes muster again, it will progress to the third stage, where it becomes a solid candidate for admission to the next standard, and its ideas described fully in the manner required by the specification process. What I have just described is a very rough summary of the process, which is described more fully in a draft document on the process.

This process is hosted on GitHub and while you have to be an OASIS member to be part of the discussion of these feature proposals, in keeping with the policy that all OASIS Technical Committee be visible and transparent it can be viewed here. If you have no plans to join OASIS but want to keep an eye on current progress with DITA 2.0, bookmark this page and keep checking in.

If you take a look at the triage page, as of early-June 2017 only a handful of proposals have made it to the second stage, and none have yet progressed to the third stage. From there a new standard is slowly assembled, reviewed, goes through a public review stage, further changes and refinements incorporated, and so on. Once the specification is completed internally and ready to be approved, there’s another roughly nine-month process to get it through the OASIS pipeline to make it official. It is safe to say that the release of DITA 2.0 is not going to happen tomorrow.

DITA 2.0 is Not Imminent, So Why Wait?

It should be clear by now that DITA 2.0 is still some ways off. Personally, I would estimate that it is likely another 3-4 years away at a minimum. If you are considering a move to DITA, there’s no benefit in holding off and waiting for it to come, since you have several years in which you and your documentation team can gain from using DITA 1.x now. Even if DITA 2.0 was to be released tomorrow, the basics of content reuse—which is the underlying strength of the standard—are unlikely to be changed in any fundamental way.

Finally, if you want to influence the future direction of DITA, becoming a member of OASIS is clearly the most direct path you can take. But keep in mind that IXIASOFT is a corporate member of OASIS so that we can help define what DITA can be, by lending our expertise and advocating on behalf of our clients for the new ideas and features to be incorporated into the next version of the standard.

About the author:
Keith Schengili-Roberts
Keith is the DITA Evangelist and Market Researcher at IXIASOFT. Keith is also an award-winning lecturer on Information Architecture at the University of Toronto’s School for Continuing Education. He is the Chair of the OASIS DITA Adoption Committee, and can often be found presenting at conferences, working with customers, and researching how DITA is being used and sharing those results. Keith's popular industry blog has become a focal point on DITA resources. Connect with Keith on Twitter @KeithIXIASOFT.