Unravelling DITA and S1000D

October 27, 2015 11:23 am Published by

DITA and S1000D are two of the most well-known documentation management technologies worldwide. Both of these specifications are used to create, publish and manage all sorts of documentation with the grounding principles being content reuse and single-source publishing. They separate content by its type, take individual pieces of it and structure it in an external map.

Are they as similar to each other as they look at the surface? Let us delve deeper to find out what do they have in common and what points do they differ on.

S1000D is an international specification for the production of technical publications. While it is not an ISO standard, it is still widely used in many countries, especially the technologically developed ones. It was created in the 1980’s by the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD) to manage huge amounts of technical documentation that were produced constantly. It has been mostly used by equipment developers associated with land, sea, and aerial military defence projects across Europe, USA, and Australia. Over the last years, the specification has seen a healthy growth and it is currently supported by the following organisations:

  • AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD)
  • Aerospace Industries Association of America (AIA)
  • Air Transport Association (ATA)

The S1000D Steering Committee is formed from the select board members of these organisations, along with representatives from national industry and defence of most countries where this specification is used. This committee is responsible for the continuous support and development of S1000D, and is on the forefront of its implementation.
One of the core concepts of S1000D is technical publication. This is a document or a resource that is presented to the reader in different formats, either in print or electronic hypertext form. S1000D structures content into smaller chunks, which are written only once and are later used as building blocks for larger bodies of content. This approach is immensely powerful when it comes to time and resource saving, as well as helping raise the quality of documentation as a whole.
While allowing for different types of technical publications, S1000D places significant restrictions on their structure and formatting. These restrictions might not be very welcome to some users, as many writers like a certain amount of freedom in their work.

Like S1000D, DITA is also based on the single source principle. DITA and S1000D both allow to reuse chunks of content in the forms of data modules (for S1000D) and topics (for DITA). These can be reused over and over again to create different documents with existing material, effectively eliminating the need to rewrite any repeating content. What sets DITA apart is its specializations and the fact that it is not constrained to particular industries and as such has more applications.

What are specializations? To quote the official OASIS website: “(a) specialization allows you to define new kinds of information (new structural types or new domains of information), while reusing as much of existing design and code as possible, and minimizing or eliminating the costs of interchange, migration, and maintenance”. Now, add the inherited versatility of DITA to this advantage, and you can see the benefits of DITA when used outside of the set of industries dominated by S1000D.

DITA was created for technical systems documentation and is in the forefront for program and engineering documentation in the IT industry. This fact is further substantiated by DITA originating in IBM and having prominent supporters like Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, Oracle, and SAP. Meanwhile, specialisations allow DITA to cover other areas like learning & training, healthcare, automotive and machinery.

The one significant drawback of DITA is its reputation of being difficult to master. As it is used in areas beyond the technical, this can sometimes become quite an obstacle to overcome for those seeking to adopt single source publishing. However, many solution providers have their own documentation solutions based on the standard that make using DITA easier. These companies give consultation to their clients to help them find optimal solutions for their individual situation and give assistance through the whole process of DITA implementation, migration and training.

In the end, the question still remains about which one is better. Well, there is no definitive answer to that. If you deal in manufacturing heavy aerospace or defense equipment, then S1000D is the ideal candidate. However, DITA has a very clear edge when it comes to all other industries. There is nothing stopping you from using both of these specifications if the work requires it, as it is possible to use DITA to create reusable content pieces that can later be assembled into S1000D data modules. However, there is rarely a need for delving into such complexity. If it comes to choosing a candidate based on the credentials, DITA is, without a doubt, the more widely used, flexible and adaptable of the two.

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