Wednesday, March 26, 2008

iSommelier - Extreme Single Sourcing

There's a lot of talk in technical communication about single sourcing, to put it mildly, but how does single sourcing actually manifest itself?

If we focus on online outputs, we're typically talking about one help file designed for use on a large-screen device like a desktop or laptop PC. Occasionally, someone will output in multiple formats, such as WebHelp and HTML Help, but still for a desktop or laptop PC. Rarely, someone might have to output for handhelds or, rarer still, to voice, ink, or other unusual systems.

One common denominator behind all of these outputs is individual interactions and standard units of content - one person at a time using one topic at a time. But a recent article in Business Week (The iSommelier Will Take Your Order, Feb. 25, 2008, page 72) introduced a new and unusual type of output.

iSommelier is a wine bar with a touch-sensitive surface, like an iPhone and on the same lines as Microsoft's Surface (see The idea behind iSommelier is that guests can review a restaurant's wine selections, read tasting notes, and place orders using their fingers as navigation tools on the device's surface. As the writer describes it:

"... a list of countries materializes. I choose Spain. Then a menu of regions appears, and beneath that, a selection of wines. I drill down some more, and a graphic displays details about the producer and grapes, along with tasting notes arranged in a rosette pattern..."

Touch-screen computers aren't new. ATMs have been around for years. But interfaces like iSommelier offer more interesting displays and group interactivity. It's also an excellent illustration of how unexpected technical and marketing forces may affect how we create and structure content for display in unexpected venues. Imagine that you're the content developer for a wine reference web site and are told by the sales manager that the company just won a bid to provide information for some weird new product called iSommelier... Some possible effects:

- In order to avoid writing content multiple times, you'll have to be able to repurpose your existing content for iSommelier and whatever comes after that.

- The need to manipulate the content means it'll have to be coded using proper syntax. This could drive your move toward XML, since you'll need clean code in order to be able to repurpose the content quickly and automatically.

- The need to manipulate the content also means it must be structured consistently. The obvious answer is structured authoring, but according to what standard? DITA is often presented as the answer to all structured authoring needs but, from what I've seen of it, it lacks the flexibility to handle something this unusual. (I'm open to correction from other DITA users here...)

One argument against worrying about products like iSommelier or technologies like touch-surface driven interfaces is scarcity and price. iSommelier costs $250,000 and Microsoft's Surface is expected to cost $5,000 to $10,000 per unit, limiting their market penetration. True, but notice that Surface is already over 95% cheaper than iSommelier and costs will continue to fall if there proves to be a market for this kind of technology. (The first laser printer I ever saw was the size of a desk and cost about $250,000. My latest is a color laser with automatic two-sided printing that cost $399.)

Without trying to read too much into one interesting but niche product, iSommelier is a harbinger of the types of uses for our content that may show up out of the blue, and that we can only be prepared for by following standards.

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