Preparing Content for Device Independence

January 2005

Documentation consultant Neil Perlin spoke at the Boston-IA meeting on January 12, 2005, about how open standard technologies— such as XHTML and metadata— can create device independence and accessibility.

Topic: "Preparing Content for Device Independence"

Date: January 12, 2005

Speaker: Neil Perlin

Location: Bentley University
Waltham, Massachusetts

Internet accessibility means making the Internet accessible not only with different accessibility software but with different hardware as well. Whether it's the Internet or offline content, creating content that is not tied to a particular output device is an important component of making content accessible.

Preparing content for device independence was the topic of guest speaker Neil Perlin, an independent consultant of Hyper/Word Services at the first Boston-IA meeting of 2005.

Neil's background is in content. He was a former technical writer at Digital Equipment Corporation, and now he helps clients in all industries create or convert content— especially online help documentation— for different output devices. Neil provided an informative presentation with occasional amusing client anecdotes to an audience of Boston-IA members and guests at the conference facilities of Bentley [University].

Single-Sourcing and Device Independence

The presentation began with an explanation of the concepts of device independence (DI) and single-sourcing. Different content formats are required for different devices, such as personal computers, PDAs, and web-enabled cell phones. "Non-traditional" mobile devices, already popular in Europe and Asia, are beginning to make an impact in the United States.

Issues include dealing with differences in screen sizes, software vendors, device vendors, and industry groups, and accessibility standards that are often ignored. The practice of single sourcing, a concept which Neil said can have different definitions, tends to deal with creating multiple formats of content that are still for only one type of device— namely PCs and laptops.

According to Neil, a likely solution to creating content in a form that is common to all devices or convertible to other forms would be based on XML and make use of metadata. The rest of the presentation went on to give an overview of XML (and XHTML) and of metadata.

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XML (eXtensible Markup Language) has various benefits, including a focus on online content, a stricter adherence to syntax, and a wide and growing choice of authoring tools. Neil provided three real-world examples of document uses for XHTML. He also provided an example of how HTML code looks before and after conversion into XHTML, and he provided resources of HTML to XHTML converters and lists of XML authoring tools.


Metadata, information about information, can help in the finding of files and topics and help in the processing of the files for single sourcing. In addition to metadata that is descriptive, there can also be metadata that provides information indicating how to process the material, such as indicating relevant output types. Neil gave examples of metadata features available in organizing content in Windows Explorer, Word document properties, and RoboHelp properties. Metadata can be applied more effectively by using open standards, and Neil discussed two such open standards: Dublin Core and RDF (Resource Description Framework).

Neil concluded by saying that the document authors need to know code in order to create device-independent content and that a variety of standards are needed for all aspects of document-creation. Finally, he emphasized that those working on documentation need to coordinate with other groups and position documentation as strategic for a company by rewording it as "content".


XML authoring tools for writers:

HTML to XHTML converter:

XML or HTML editors that create XHTML:

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