Monday, May 11, 2009

DocBook: A Successful Open Source Project?

A few weeks ago, I found an interesting article on gauging the success of Open Source projects. Since I contribute to several open source and standards initiatives, I thought I'd put the article to the test with the most prominent of these: DocBook.

To give a little history, DocBook has been around since 1991. It is a very robust content model and considered the "de facto" standard for technical documentation. Given it's broad adoption, does that necessarily mean it is successful? Why? The article provides a 9-point checklist, so I'll address each of these in turn.

  1. A thriving community - DocBook has one of the most active user communities around. Don't believe me? Check out the docbook-apps mailing list and the docbook mailing list and by tuning into the DocBook irc channel. You can get expert help from around the world almost 24-7 and in multiple languages, too! Many of these are contributors to the DocBook project on, and participation is welcomed and encouraged.

  2. Disruptive goals - Many would agree that DocBook provides much more control and semantics to what is currently available in Microsoft Word or other commercial documentation solutions. DocBook aims to be the preeminent solution for creating books and papers about computer hardware and software (though it is by no means limited to these applications).

  3. A benevolent dictator - Two words: Norm Walsh. Norm is very well known in the XML community. He is not afraid to speak his mind concerning requested features, but is very open to new ideas and contributions.

  4. Transparency - DocBook is maintained by a technical committee at OASIS. All activities and correspondence is archived and available for public review and input. The DocBook mailing lists are also archived by several different services. You can't get much more transparent than that.

  5. Civility - This has never been an issue in the DocBook community. All participants are very professional, and willing to help the newbies as well as experts with any DocBook-related issues.

  6. Documentation - Not only is the DocBook specification publicly available, but Norm Walsh has open-sourced his book, "DocBook: The Definitive Guide" and Bob Stayton has open-sourced his book, "DocBook XSL: The Complete Guide". These are the best sources of documentation available for DocBook, but several parameter references as well as the DocBook wiki are also publicly available.

  7. Employed developers - While DocBook does not have any official paid developers, several of the contributors work full-time on DocBook and DocBook implementations.

  8. A clear license - The standard is freely available from OASIS as well as the site. The specifications are covered under OASIS IPR Policy, where you can read all of the details.

  9. Commercial support - Last, but not least, DocBook is supported in many commercial products.

In consideration of these 9 items in the checklist, I would posit that DocBook is, indeed, a very successful open-source project and well worth considering for your documentation.

I'd also like to point out to the naysayers that DocBook is NOT dead! In fact, it is more active than ever! The latest version of the standard (v5.0) has been in development for the last several years and is expected to reach official OASIS standard status some time this year. The DocBook TC is also establishing subcommittees to address industry-specific needs.

The first of these is the DocBook Publishers subcommittee, which is addressing the needs of the publishing industry (as opposed to computer hardware and software documentation industry). The specification for an official Publishers schema was recently approved and will be available for public review shortly.

If you have specific needs in publishing, documentation, or content management, we would be very pleased to assist you. Please visit the new Flatirons Solutions website at:

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