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November 21, 2016

tekom 2016: Götterdämmerung?

After the anti-DITA insurrection at tekom 2015, the 2016 conference took a turn in a different direction.

Here are a few highlights. Keep in mind that the conference is huge; it would take a platoon of people to cover the 250 technical sessions.

The overarching theme of tekom 2016 was intelligent content, which was covered in several complementary tracks:

Façade of the Stuttgart convention center with teton and intelligent information decals

tekom at the Stuttgart convention center // Photo: Alan Pringle

  • DITA Forum (English), organized by Kris Eberlein and me, focused on case studies and concrete implementation experiences in DITA. Alan Pringle of Scriptorium and Tina Meißner of parson AG discussed the development of the English and German versions of LearningDITA.
  • Intelligent Information (German) asserted that “dynamic delivery of user information is the future of technical communication: personalized information at the right time in the right location in the right format. Requirements to create intelligent information include structured authoring, component content management, metadata, intelligent delivery, use cases, and user experience.” (source)
  • Information Energy (English) largely focused on the need for Information 4.0 in response to Industry 4.0.

iiRDS standard

The tekom organization is working on a new standard, iiRDS, the Intelligent Information Request and Delivery Standard. The standard was introduced by Michael Fritz and a team of industry experts during the conference.

Here is the description from tekom, along with my translation:
[blockquote]Die Bereitstellung von Nutzungsinformation muss automatisiert werden, damit diese kontextabhängig und individualisiert geschehen kann und sich in Konzepte wie Industrie 4.0 oder Internet of Things integriert.

Um dieses Ziel zu erreichen fehlte es bislang an einem branchenübergreifend akzeptierten Standard. Diese Lücke will die tekom-Arbeitsgruppe “Information 4.0” aus namhaften Vertretern von CMS, Industrieanwendern, Beratern und Wissenschaftlern mit dem tekom-iiRDS schließen.

The delivery of user information must be automated to enable context-independent and personalized publishing and to enable integration with Industry 4.0 and Internet of Things applications.

Until now, we cannot achieve this goal because we do not have an accepted cross-industry standard. The tekom working group Information 4.0 intends to close this gap with the tekom-iiRDS standard, which is being developed by leading representatives of CMSs, industry, consultants, and researchers.[/blockquote]
Ulrike Parson of Parson AG provided a detailed overview of iiRDS. She writes this:
[blockquote]We need to standardize the metadata that we deliver together with our documentation and which makes our content semantically accessible. Only this way can documentation content become exchangeable and usable for multiple producers. That’s the fundamental concern of iiRDS.[/blockquote]
Tekom plans to launch the standard with a Request for Comments phase on March 31, 2017. The standard will be released under Creative Commons license. Currently, there is minimal information on the tekom site, but you can sign up for a newsletter.

It’s too early to provide any assessment of the standard still under development, but I have a few comments and questions:

  • The working group is a who’s who of German tech comm experts.
  • It’s unclear whether iiRDS will be a competitor to other modular standards, like DITA and S1000D, or whether those standards could be integrated with iiRDS.
  • There are a lot of flavors of Creative Commons licenses, and I’d like to know exactly what the license will be.
  • I’d like to know more about governance of the standard.
  • It’s fascinating to see the German CMS vendors support a standard after arguing vehemently at tekom 2015 that their various flavors of XML, bound to their individual systems, were Just Fine Thank You.
  • What differentiates iiRDS from DITA? (I think the answer is a metadata classification scheme based on PI-Classification.) Ms. Parson also says in her article that iiRDS will be a standard for interchange and not authoring.
  • Could that metadata be implemented in DITA? (Yes, via a metadata specialization and/or subjectScheme?)
  • Why choose iiRDS? Why not?
  • It is really open? Open source? Usable? Configurable?
  • Will the market support this new standard?

Information Energy

The Information Energy track focused on how information must evolve to meet the requirements of Industry 4.0. Briefly, the Industry 4.0 is the concept of the intelligent machine—a factory where machines are interconnected. The concept is related to the Internet of Things, but where IoT usually focuses on consumer use cases (the refrigerator that automatically reorders food), Industry 4.0 focuses on the business applications of connected machines.

DITA Forum

Interest in DITA was strong at tekom 2016. The DITA Forum sessions were well-attended. The DITA Forum offered several case studies (SAP, rail industry, e-learning), an overview of specialization concepts, and a panel discussion on DITA versus custom XML versus no XML.

Other DITA content

Confusingly, there were other DITA presentations in addition to those in the DITA Forum. Dr. Martin Kreutzer of Empolis provided an excellent overview of different ways to manage variant content in DITA. (Slides in German)

Meanwhile, Karsten Schrempp of PANTOPIX delivered a presentation entitled, Was wir von DITA lernen könnten – wenn wir denn wollten! …What we could learn from DITA—if we wanted to! (Slides in German) Please note the use of subjunctive mood (in both his original German and my English translation).

This was an interesting presentation. Mr. Schrempp outlined various DITA features and described how these features, if not the standard itself, are potentially useful even in Germany (where DITA is notoriously unpopular). There were a few assertions that stood out to me:

  • Several times during the presentation, he reminded attendees that referring to DITA advocates as the “DITA Taliban” was not very helpful or productive. It was quite amusing, even as the repeated reminders took on a tinge of “But Brutus is an honorable man…”
  • DITA versus CMS. Mr. Schrempp tried to close the gap. In Germany, there has been the argument that DITA is “merely” a standard for content development on the file system. He pointed out that DITA used inside a CMS is still a DITA system. In German tech comm circles, this is a controversial assertion.
  • Toward the end of the presentation, in almost a throwaway comment, Mr. Schrempp mentioned a key difference between DITA CMS systems and the proprietary XML CMS systems more popular in Germany: Purchasing a DITA CMS does not lock a customer into a specific content delivery portal. Some of the DITA CMS vendors do provide content delivery portals, but DITA content can be delivered in any DITA-compatible portal. By contrast, most German CMS vendors create both authoring systems (CMS) and content delivery systems. Because each CMS uses its own flavor of XML, choosing a CMS effectively means choosing the content delivery system at the same time. This selection is decoupled in the DITA market.

In a later discussion, I spoke with Mr. Schrempp in more detail about this issue. He pointed out that the new iiRDS standard could enable a customer to buy a CMS from one vendor and a content delivery portal from another vendor. iiRDS could provide the middleware layer to cross-connect the otherwise incompatible content models.

Politics at tekom

The US election, which occurred in the middle of the conference, was a topic of discussion throughout the event. A few serious conversations drove home the worldwide impact of developments in the United States. From an Indian participant, I heard concerns about possible changes to the H1-B visa program. From an Eastern European participant, there was grave concern about the US’s continued commitment to NATO and to former Eastern Bloc countries that are now NATO members.


The theme that emerged from tekom was the need for integration of information from multiple sources. This integration requirement is driving interest in standards. The iiRDS standard is clearly aimed at the huge German machinery documentation market.

Claire Parry of CMP Services has a tekom takeaways article.

What did you think of tekom 2016?