Saturday, February 21, 2009

FrameMaker. Again.

At the end of the day, if you're going to write a book using some kind of authoring technology, you must decide on the technology you're going to use. I have real-world experience with FrameMaker, LaTeX, and Open Office, and I've looked into or played around with reST, XML with DocBook or DTBook (via Daisy), and Microsoft Word. I've tried to weigh their strengths and weaknesses with respect to issues I've discussed in this blog: conditional content, conditional and personalized formatting, WYSIWYG versus markup, multiple-platform publication, etc. The day has been long, but the time has come to end it, and my conclusion is that none of my choices is particularly attractive. Were I made of the same stuff as Donald Knuth, my solution would be to invent my own authoring technology, but I'm no Knuth, so I'm going to hold my nose and choose the least objectionable of the available options. For me, that's FrameMaker. Again. Sigh.

To a large degree, the decision boiled down to choosing the devil I know over the devils I don't. The more I looked into XML-based approaches, the more I became convinced that I'd have to educate myself in XML, XSLT, and CSS, technologies I don't know. (Not knowing them puts me horribly out of step with the modern world, but I've been busy with other things. If you want to know about the interaction of relaxed hardware memory models on C++ compiler optimizations, how to efficiently make use of the STL, or how to model embedded-system FSAs in C++, I'm your guy. I can also tell you a thing or two about the challenges of multiple-platform authoring.) I could learn those technologies, of course, and it would be interesting and useful for me to do so. But if I honestly want to get Fastware! written, I have to focus on that, and XML, XSLT, and CSS don't fall within that focus. Besides, I suspect (but have not confirmed) that when using an XML schema, I'm constrained to using the style (element?) names defined by the schema, and I'd prefer to use book-specific style names instead of generic names.

Regarding reST and LaTeX, the former I don't know, and the latter I've mostly forgotten. Both would require dealing with learning curves that would ultimately leave me in a place where I still would be unlikely to be able to achieve everything I wanted. Neither is WYSIWYG, for example, and a short time with reST revealed that it's not as expressive as I'd like.

Microsoft Word doesn't really do conditional content (though there is apparently an add-on that makes the feature available), and it has the irritating constraint that certain of its style names can't be deleted, but the real problem is that, based on my limited experience with it, the learning curve is both steep and essentially limitless. (In an earlier post, I likened it to that of C++.) It doesn't help that many authors with Word experience talk about it as if they were the victims of unusually sadistic domestic abuse.

My experience with Open Office led me to conclude that it simply isn't up to authoring the kind of book I want to write.

FrameMaker I already know. It's lacking in the areas of conditional formatting, per-copy personalization, and separation of content from presentation, but I have some ideas for how to deal with these limitations. Furthermore, FM can generate MIF, a textual representation of its documents, and MIF can be transformed into other formats if you throw enough programming effort at it. There's also the FDK (FrameMaker Developer Kit), an API for FM documents, so, again, there's a programmatic hook to do things myself that FrameMaker can't do. I've never tried to transform MIF or use the FDK, so if I have to go that route, I'm back in the land of learning curves, but I think there's a learning curve in front of me no matter what technology I choose. My sense is that, overall, the ratio of time spent writing to time spent fighting with the authoring technology is likely to be best with FrameMaker.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, the saying goes, and certainly that's been the case for me and book-writing. For at least the last 10 years, each time I've finished a book using FM, I've vowed not to use it again. The next time I got ready to start a book, I investigated the alternatives and talked to authors for recommendations. Each time I came away with the impression that there was no choice I was likely to find less unpleasant than Frame. The stuff I'm made of is apparently closer to Britney Spears than Donald Knuth, because oops, I'm going to do it again.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sources for Fastware!-Related Information

One of the reasons I want to write Fastware! is that I don't know of any existing book that covers the breadth of topics I think are important for developers of speedy systems. To date, most of my blog entries have focused on authoring issues, but most of the time I've devoted to Fastware! since beginning the project nearly two years ago has been spent on collecting and organizing the information that the book will contain.

The information has come from many sources. I began with personal interviews with several groups and individuals working on speed-sensitive systems -- a fascinating experience. That gave me a good base from which to begin my search for further information, information I've found in the form of articles, conference papers, blog entries, podcasts, videos, and more. The most relevant sources of information I've been recording in an Excel spreadsheet, and I've decided to make this spreadsheet available at the (primitive, but I'm working on it) Fastware! web site from time to time. I've just uploaded the initial snapshot, which has 75 entries in it.

It's going to take me a while to write Fastware!, but if you're interested in speed-related information in the meantime, I hope my list of sources will be useful to you.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Post-TOC Thoughts

Last week I attended the Tools of Change for Publishing conference (TOC), during which I gave a talk discussing some of the authoring challenges I've written about in this blog. I came away more convinced than ever that writing primarily for electronic publication (while keeping print publication in mind) is best for everyone: authors, publishers, and readers. I also came away further convinced that authors should think about audio distribution as they write, a conclusion reinforced by Amazon's inclusion of automatic text-to-speech (TTS) capability in the Kindle 2. (This feature has caused a bit of a rights-related stir among some in the publishing industry, but I believe it's in everybody's interest to work this issue out, so I'm confident that it won't take long for most content to be available in this form. Contracts for future books will address this issue directly, and in a couple of years, no one will think twice about this.)

One of the things I got from the conference is that authors would be well-advised to assume that as time goes on, more and more people will consume content on small devices. Currently we call such devices "mobile phones," but in reality, they're truly personal, truly portable computers -- the general-purpose devices people will have with them almost all the time. As such, electronic books in whatever format will be increasingly viewed on small screens.

Think of what that means for content that normally features complex diagrams, large tables, etc. In the past, I've written my books knowing that the content would fit on physical pages of about 9 x 7 inches. After taking margins into account, I had pages of about 7.25 x 4.75 inches to tell my story, and I designed things to fit within those constraints. An iPhone screen is about 3 x 2 inches, meaning that if I want my content to work well on that device, I have to make sure it will (1) fit and (2) be comprehensible when it's displayed there. Prose is not a problem, but other things could be: source code listings, diagrams, tables, graphs, etc.

It seems unlikely that people will want to read lengthy ("long-form") content on a tiny screen, and usage data suggest that people generally read using such devices during "between times," i.e., while commuting, while waiting for a meeting to start, etc. -- generally no more than about 20 minutes a pop. The best content for such reading is "short form," and this suggests that authors who want to make their content small-screen-friendly need to find a way to break their presentations into comparatively small chunks that are naturally consumable more or less independently.

Interestingly, this is one of the characteristics that my "Effective" books tend to have, because the material is generally broken down into Items of 4-6 pages that pretty much stand on their own. This is a popular feature of these books, something I didn't realize until I wrote some much longer Items in my second book (More Effective C++), and people complained about it. This suggests that a naturally chunkable presentation not only makes things more small-screen-friendly, it can also be a benefit in print form.

won't be broken down into Items, because I don't think that's the best way to cover the material I want to discuss, but I'll definitely be thinking of ways to structure the material so that it can be easily consumed in relatively small, self-contained chunks.

On small screens.

Or as audio.

In addition to ink-on-paper form :-)