I’m now writing in an AuthorIT environment. My first learning task is to find out the proper pronunciation, is it Author Eye Tee? Or Author It? Let’s see what wikipedia has to say about AuthorIT. In their article, they consistently refer to the product as Author-it, so I would suppose the second pronunciation I proposed is the correct one. Plus, the AuthorIT website has Authorit throughout. Internally we call it AIT for short.
At first glance, the product looks and feels like a database-centric content management system because of the initial connect you make is to a SQL Server database. But in fact the way you browse the system is folder-based, as if I were using Windows Explorer. So far, so good, except that I’m not yet completely familiar with the way that the CMS folder structure is set up based on our Function-based teams. However, we have a Helpsite that lets me browse the current content in another way and has a decent search mechanism and index to allow me to look for the topics I’d need to update.
What I’m doing now to get started as a greenhorn with both the toolset and the product I’m documenting is to peruse the Helpsite which is organized by tasks and features of the product, and then determining what topics need updating for the particular feature I’m working on, and then right-clicking and getting Properties on the page I want to update. Next, armed with the five-digit number that the HTML file is named, I do a search in the AuthorIT database to find that exact topic, and then make my edits. Whew.
One incorrect assumption I had going in to the AuthorIT environment was that editing is all based in Microsoft Word. Not true at all, my AIT trainer protests, the editor is AIT’s own, but AIT does a good job of outputting to Word formats and you can use VB macros to format the output as you wish. I’m still learning so I’ll let you know what other incorrect assumptions I’m finding otherwise about.
The other thing that strikes me right away is that while it’s topic-based and structured authoring, all the things you create are either books or sub-books. I wonder if that interface could be changed to refer to deliverables or some other such generic term that isn’t loaded with a print connotation. It’s a minor nit to pick, that the loaded term “book” is so prevalent, but many other editors and CMSes have gone beyond the book terminology so I was surprised it still lives in AuthorIT.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that impressed with the available outputs. Here’s the list from the AuthorIT website: (hey, I would have given you all a more precise link, but when I clicked Publishable Outputs in the sidebar in that page, I got a page not found error using IE 7 on WinXP SP2.)
- Printed Documentation (Word, RTF, or PDF)
- Microsoft HTML Help
- Sun JavaHelp
- Oracle Help for Java
- Vista Help (Upon Release)
- Web and browser based Help
- HTML 4.01 + CSS (W3C Validated)
- XHTML 1.0 + CSS (W3C Validated)
- HTML based slide show Presentations
The first omission that comes to mind is the lack of Eclipse help output. There’s also no Flash help output. In addition, I wanted to analyze further on the usability and look and feel of the Web and browser based help, especially with the recent article complaining about DITA’s lack of a cross-browser “Web help” like what Robohelp outputs as well as the lack of FlashHelp output. There are a couple of good articles out lately about it. There’s an article on ditausers.org comparing Help Authoring Toolkits to the DITA Open Toolkit. His output comparison matrix for DITA points out the lack of a webhelp equivalent for DITA Open Toolkit transforms. Here’s Tony Self’s recent analysis on Writer’s UA website. But I’m not talking about DITA necessarily, unless I was going to propose outputting AuthorIT to DITA and using DITA transforms for publishing, a workflow that I’m not proposing because it just seems too roundabout and more difficult to automate.
Anyway, my first glance at the AuthorIT web help output is that it’s a little bit antiquated but it is tripane and it does have contents and index tabs but no search tab according to the demo on the AuthorIT site. Frankly, without a search function, no help system is complete. With a quick Google search, though, I learned from Char James-Tanny that “by default, AuthorIT does not include a search tab, although the Help file does include instructions for hooking up a free CGI search.” That article appears to be dated January 2003 so I would have to do more hands-on testing to determine the quality of the search and the ease to implement it. Interestingly, in that article she mentions using AuthorIT as the CMS and editing environment and then using RoboHelp for the more feature-rich output engine. I wonder if that’s still a viable toolkit and publishing engine combination now that Adobe is developing RoboHelp.
Writing an article like this one while I’m still very inexperienced with AuthorIT is risky because I will read it later and think, “why would I proclaim my ignorance in a public manner?” But I believe it’s important to capture initial thoughts and reactions while they’re fresh in my mind. So bear with me while I analzye the authoring system and the publishing system and draw some perhaps premature or immature conclusions.