Technical writing in the Cloud

One of the most popular developments in computing in recent years has been the emergence of cloud-based computing and Software as a Service (SaaS). Examples of cloud-based computing include Google’s GMail: Instead of an application being installed locally on a user’s computer, it runs on a remote server, accessed via the user’s Web browser.

So is technical writing likely to move to the Cloud? Let’s look at the different approaches.

Why would you want to write using a cloud-based application?

There are a number of reasons why a Technical Author might want to use a cloud-based application. The first reason is cost. Instead of purchasing an application, cloud-based applications are typically offered on a monthly fee basis. If you’re looking to move to a DITA authoring environment, this spreading of costs could prove an attractive alternative to the upfront costs associated with buying a DITA solution.

There are other reasons, why you might also consider moving to a cloud-based solution:

  • If you have staff, a technical writing partner (such as Cherryleaf) or contractors working remotely, cloud computing means you can quickly and easily add them into your authoring environment.
  • If you want to work in a collaborative authoring environment, cloud-based applications typically enable you to do that.
  • If you use a third party company (such as Cherryleaf), you have the opportunity, at a later date, to log into the system and make any minor updates (following updated releases of your product) yourself.

Check in/out

You don’t necessarily need to move to a cloud-based environment, if you want to have remote workers and/or collaborative authoring. The most popular authoring tools, such as RoboHelp, FrameMaker and Flare, use a check in/out model instead of a cloud-based approach. Writers can “check out” a topic from a project and work on it remotely. They can then “check in” the completed topic back into the project, via email or SharePoint.

Your authors will all need to have the Help Authoring Tool on their computers, and you cannot watch them as they write, but it’s worth considering.


If you’re looking for a SaaS authoring tool, then there are a number to consider:

  • DITA-based authoring applications and services, such as Doczone, DITAweb and Stilo Migrate
  • Help Authoring Tools, such as HelpConsole and Author-it Live
  • Wiki-based technical authoring applications, such as Mindtouch Cloud and Atlassian OnDemand
  • Word processors, such as Google Docs

You’re usually unable to add any additional plugins, which you’d be able to do if the software was installed on your computers or servers.

You may also need to consider where your data is actually being stored. Data privacy rules differ in the USA and the European Union –  the USA’s Patriot Act, for example.

Your own private cloud (VPN)

Some organisations simply add remote workers to their existing network. The organisation has its own private cloud, a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Typically, it’s up to the IT department as to whether a remote user will be given access to a system. You may need to acquire licences, and you may need to wait for IT to set this all up for you.

An alternative approach is to create a private cloud for your own department. You can create a server in the Cloud, using Amazon’s EC2 service, or using alternatives from companies such as RackSpace or Microsoft (Azure). On this server, you could install for example, a customised version of the Authoring application (containing all the plugins and macros you require), and provide remote workers with a web address, user name and password for them to log in. With VPN server prices starting at $20/month, it’s an affordable option.

If you decide to do this “under the radar” (i.e. don’t tell the IT department you’re setting up your own VPN), you need to make sure you’re conforming to your organisation’s IT security policy. Otherwise, you could be in trouble.

Are you writing in the Cloud?

The reasons for using cloud-based applications seem to be as valid in the Technical Publications department as in other departments. So it’s likely we’ll see a growth in the uptake of this type of service.

  • Are you writing in the Cloud? How have you tackled this problem?
  • Is writing in the Cloud a good idea?

We welcome your comments.

QR Tags – coming to your local Technical Author soon

We have been talking about the potential for using QR Tags since 2009, so it is great to see that MadCap Software has announced Flare version 7 will include QR Tag capabilities.

MadCap states:

In an online and searchable document, it is easy to include hyperlinks, URLs, etc., for users to access more information, but how do you enable this from a print document? With QR codes, authors can empower their users in ways never before possible, by giving them access to more relevant, actionable and up to date content wherever and whenever they need it, directly from any print document.

  1. Instead of creating a large manual with hundreds of pages, create a Quick Start guide with fewer pages. At the bottom of each page, step, topic, or procedure, add a QR code that allows users to access more detailed information online.
  2. For users out in the field that need access to updated information, include codes in printed manuals that direct them to the needed content in your Help system.
  3. You have a printed procedures manual with QR codes that, when scanned, link to movies showing the procedures in action.
  4. For external communication, include a QR code at the bottom of a document that takes them straight to a website where they can purchase a particular part or product.

Making predictions is a risky business – it’s possible to look back at our posts and see if our predictions have been spot on or widely off the mark. We believe it gives prospective clients some assurance we know what we’re talking about.

It’s a learning process. Do tell us if you agree or disagree with any of our predictions or if you think we’ve missed a trend.

Super MadCap quite fantastic; are other tools atrocious?

With the imminent release of DITA support in MadCap Flare, will competing Help authoring tools (HATS) suddenly seem inadequate to the task of technical writing?

Where does this leave Adobe’s RoboHelp?

I suspect it will be difficult technically and commercially (Adobe also owns FrameMaker) for Adobe to add DITA support into RoboHelp.

If writers are collaborating on a project or if a Help system needs be localised into foreign languages, then RoboHelp and other HATS may well lose out to Flare.

However, if a sole author just needs to write a straightforward Help File, then many may not feel the need to change from the tool they use today.

So what would you do if you were Adobe?

I wonder if Adobe will choose to compete with MadCap in other ways. RoboHelp could become more of an online training, performance support, tool. Also, Adobe could bundle RoboHelp with FrameMaker at a price that makes Flare seem very expensive.

This, of course, may be all academic if the DITA standard isn’t taken up by more authors.

New software for technical authors from MadCap Software

MadCap Software has released on details some new products it will be releasing shortly. These include MadCap X-Edit and MadCap Press.

What is striking is that MadCap really does seem to understand the problems technical communicators face in the real world.

One of the issues technical authors often face is dealing with reviews of drafts and dealing with any amendments. If the drafts are sent out as a Word document, your nicely styled document can come back with as a formatting mess. It’s partly due to the fact that most users just don’t understand Word’s Styles features.

Whitney Potsus has posted on her “Connected Content” Blog some handy suggestions on how to avoid this by using some of Word’s less well know features (“You turn into Style Gallery Cop and put your documents into lockdown.”), but these can create barriers between the reviewer and the documents you want them to review.

X-Edit promises “a document solution for the everyday content contributor that combines both editing and publishing into a single document solution…Send Blaze or Flare topics to reviewers with direct Outlook integration. The reviewer can make edits, changes, and annotations within the topics. When the reviewer is done, sending the topic back is as easy as one click.”

MadCap Press seems to park MadCap’s tanks firmly on Adobe’s lawn. MadCap Press promises the ability to create high-end print documents, such as product brochures. It also promises seamless integration with MadCap’s translation tool, Lingo.

I still have concerns that Adobe still really doesn’t understand the practicalities of technical communication, that features appear as solutions looking for problems to solve. However, Adobe is the market leader and, as we’ve seen in IT many times before, it’s often the company with the best marketing (rather than the best software) that wins. This means MadCap needs to be good at marketing (which they are), as well as good at development.

I think Author-It will still be a player. They seem to have a strategy of developing a community of advocates and influencers and of disrupting the market. In some ways, Author-It makes FrameMaker and RoboHelp look very old fashioned.