XML content now easier to author

SoftQuad Software Inc. is promising to straighten out XML learning curves with XMetal 1.0, its new content authoring tool.

XMetaL creates documents that conform to arbitrary document type definitions (DTDs), both ASCII and compiled, and features three editing views. In Normal view, authors are presented with a familiar word processor-like interface. In Plain Text, experienced users operate in a detailed text-oriented view, complete with inline tags and attributes. And in Tags-On view, content authors see a word processor-like view with collapsible tags for immediate access to all elements and attributes.

According to Peter Sharpe, chief scientist at SoftQuad in Burnaby, B.C., XMetal is similar to HTML authoring tools, but specific for XML and SGML documents.

“XML is under the covers, so what you see as an end user, if you were using a browser, would look very much like HTML. In fact it could be made to look exactly like HTML, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

According to Sharpe, styles in XMetal are applied using a cascading style sheet (CSS).

“The CSS is applied in the same way that it would be applied using HTML, except you could have any names you want for your tags – it doesn’t have to be HTML names. That’s the first thing. But then there’s also the behaviour and the editor, which sets up very simple things like what happens when you hit the Enter key,” he said.

“What a heading is followed by, for example, would depend on the DTD. It might be similar to what’s in a form. So there’s required fields that have to be created, and it can be customized to have any behaviour you want.”

On the market now there are a few very expensive high-end tools as well as some low-end tools using Java which are inexpensive or free, Sharpe said, but he believes XMetal is the only tool addressing the mid-range market.

Jeff Quiggle, senior consultant with Pleasanton, Calif.-based document management firm Documentum Inc., said client requests for XML have soared in the last few months. He beta tested XMetal with one client, whose tech support staff wrote FAQ articles to put on-line.

“What they were doing previously is writing them in Word, doing the manual HTML conversion, and then putting them into a document management product. It was very manual, very labour-intensive, very prone to errors,” he said.

“So what we did was write them a document authoring process, whereby the user…can set the attributes, click Go, and then we go grab an XML template that gets sent down to their workstation. It then gets loaded into XMetal, and the DTD we wrote for them is on their machine. Then they can just create their document, and it [looks] like it’s in Word.”

Quiggle said XMetal allowed his team to add “really cool” features as well. “We built in what we call a Doc Link, so if a document exists that they want to refer to, all they have to do is insert the Doc Link element. Then they paste the title of the document into the link element area, so when it gets rendered in HTML, it automatically creates a hyper-link to that document,” he explained.

“XML also lets them ’round-trip’ the document. If that document needs to get edited, they’ve still got the XML source code. So they edit the XML, and the HTML gets rendered again based on the XML source.”

Betty Harvey, president of The Electronic Commerce Connection Inc., a Web content consultancy based in Germantown, Md., uses the product for documentation and reports written in SGML and XML, and particularly likes the CSS feature.

“That’s really nice – since cascading style sheets work with IE 5.0, it makes it really easy to exchange information with people who have IE 5.0,” she said.

“SGML authoring tools have traditionally been so expensive. With XMetal coming on the scene at a reasonable price, I think it’s got a good future.”

XMetal 1.0 (www.softquad.com/products/xmetal/index.html) costs US$495 per single user licence.

SoftQuad in Toronto is at (416) 544-9000.