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December 1, 2015

The advent of intelligent content

You can justify intelligent content with efficiency–more reuse, cheaper translation, better content management. The true value of intelligent content, however, is unlocked when you connect content across the organization.

For medium and large organizations, the efficiency argument easily wins the day. In a group of 10 or more writers, a one-time investment in automated formatting pays for itself almost immediately. When you add in the cost savings from localization, the financial benefits are compelling.

Efficiency, however, is not the only reason that intelligent content is important. Consider, once again, the rise of the printing press in the mid-1400s. The printing press was cheaper than hand-copying books, but it also had the following key differences:

  • Velocity. Printing is orders of magnitude faster than hand-copying.
  • Error rate. Printing errors are less common and easier to correct (because a mistake in printing setup results in an error in the same place in each copy).
  • Separation of copying and formatting. The copy function and the formatting function performed simultaneously by scribes (and illuminators) were separated. The printer would typeset pages; the printing press made the copies.

For intelligent content, we can also identify new characteristics:

  • Increased velocity, again.
  • Separation of content and formatting. Instead of applying formatting as the content is created, the formatting role is deferred until the information is rendered.
  • Metadata. Intelligent content can carry metadata, such as audience level or language.
  • Context. The context in which intelligent content is rendered can affect how the information is rendered.
  • Connection. We can integrate data, products, and content to provide new hybrids.

Of these, I think connection is the least understood today. The idea of hypertext is not particularly new, and we have basic examples already:

  • A reference to another book might take you to that book (or to an online bookseller’s listing of the book).
  • A reference to a part in a service manual could take you to a CAD drawing, a description of the part, or an order page.
  • In medical content, a mention of a specific disease could link to additional information about that disease.

But intelligent, connected content will go beyond these basic examples. Instead of laboriously encoding each link into information, I expect automatic linking. Based on metadata or other content characteristics, links will be generated when the content is rendered. The distinction between product and content will be blurred…when information appears as part of the product interface, is it part of the product? And there will be a need for product and content professionals who understand how to integrate data, product, and content to create a unified experience.

Intelligent content is about positioning information so that we are ready when these new requirements arise. A solution purpose-built to solve today’s problems will likely fail to address the new requirements. The investment in a more general solution may be worthwhile in order to keep your options open.