The number of companies using DITA – a story of success or failure?

It’s been seven years since DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) became an open standard. DITA, for those that don’t know, is an XML-based standard for structuring, writing, managing and publishing the type of content that you’d typically find in user guides, online Help and other technical documentation.

Recently, the DITAWriter web site researched how many organisations use DITA today. It found 372 organisations worldwide using DITA, and it also reported that 4% of technical writing job vacancies listed DITA as a required skill. The web site concluded these figures were a sign of the growing success of DITA, whereas others took the opposite view.

So where does the truth lie – is the adoption of DITA a story of success or failure? The answer lies, perhaps, within the laws of economics.

Most market sectors follow the Power Law – a few organisations have the majority of the market share. After the first four organisations, there’s usually a steep decline, with each of the remaining “players” having, roughly, twice as much sales as the company above them and twice as much as the company below them. This is illustrated in the graphs below:

Power Law curve

This means that the market can be split between the big players, with around 50% of the market, and the minnows, who are fighting over the remainder. The big players succeed through economies of scale and an efficient supply chain; the minnows succeed by offering niche products/services, being nimble, offering a personalised service and selling to other minnows.

The reason for describing the Power Law is because DITA, at the moment, is a solution aimed primarily at “big player problems”. It offers a more efficient supply chain, with the ability to incorporate 3rd party content, reuse data and let staff focus solely on writing. It is weaker in publishing – it doesn’t yet have the flexibility to generate lots of different, great looking, formats.

This means that DITA could be both a success and a failure – a success in its adoption within the big players, and a failure in its lack of adoption within the minnows.

At the moment, we are not aware of data to back-up our hypothesis. Keith Schengili-Roberts did also publish some findings on his DITAWriter site on the size of organisations using DITA, and he concluded that DITA was being used by organisations of all sizes. However, he did state that this information was informally-derived.

In the meantime, looking at the number of vacancies for Technical Authors skilled in DITA may be a more meaningful measure of the success of DITA. As we mentioned above, it’s been reported at being 4%, or roughly one in every twenty Technical Author vacancies. By that measure the adoption is DITA is probably not a story of a runaway success. That may well change, but it could be that we see DITA adopted by only organisations of a certain size.

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Greg DeVore

I was on the DITA subcommittee for training material for awhile but eventually left for various reasons. A few observations:

1. The proponents of DITA focus too much on reuse as opposed to effectiveness. I actually believe that the real benefit of DITA is its structured approach. The structured approach helps you write better content. Reuse is a side benefit but reusing ineffective content is pointless. The primary goal should be to write better content and THEN reuse it. I don’t seem to hear that much from the DITA crowd.

2. Content authors shouldn’t have to think about using DITA. The tools should create interfaces that guide authors into creating DITA compatible formats without the author even having to know what DITA is. As long as you people have to be trained in DITA in order to write DITA content then I predict adoption will be low.

I think DITA has a lot of promise but right now I feel that is a “means” trying too hard to be an “end”.

Larry Kunz

Thank you, Ellis, for an insightful and balanced analysis. As you imply, eventually the market will out: if there’s a compelling business case for using DITA, it’ll succeed. If there isn’t, it won’t.

Greg – Although I agree that reusing ineffective content is pointless, reuse is still more valuable than you think. There’s increasing value in being able to repurpose content on a number of different platforms, from print to desktop to mobile. Perhaps the proponents of DITA (I include myself among their number) have erred by making this sound easier than it really is. But it’s still a key ingredient in the business case for DITA. (Another key ingredient is closely related: the translation savings that are realized through reuse.)

John Tait

I’ve found DITA quite a hard sell myself. Showing a distractable board member a PDF produced by the Open Toolkit (“Look what it can do!”) isn’t going to work.

I sometimes worry that the big three specialised topics (task, concept, reference) have culturally locked DITA into the computer documentation world, when DITA is quite suitable for other kinds of technical and business documents. (Heck, it’s a universal data exchange format.)

Maybe some more kinds of specialised topics supplied with the OT would help.

I’ve been watching oXygen’s webhelp output with interest, as it kind of positions oXygen as a one-stop content production solution. (Indexes are recent, and I hope oXygen 14.2 has more improvements, out soon.) If I was in charge of Syncro Soft, I’d plough resources into that. There’s a gap in the market.

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