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I have been puzzled for some time about the purpose of the validating editor that is embedded in Microsoft Word 2003, the bizarre feature that lets you mix schema-controlled XML content in amongst Word’s own structure. I may have been jetlagged when I wrote this:

I’m not convinced. This looks like high-cost, fragile development to me, particularly with a new format coming. I think a better alternative is to use a ‘microformat’ approach, and embed information in something like a table, with a known structure, so that it can be found and processed. I have been doing this for years with educational content, using simple mechanisms like two-cell tables to mark-up content such as activities or readings. This is the approach we are taking in ICE.

What I was trying to say was that if you are going to use a word processor why not use the built-in word processing features and layer your semantics on top of them? Use the methods already provided for expressing your own semantics. Method number one is styles. Method number two is tables. This approach will work in versions of Word that don’t have XML export, and with forthcoming Word formats that have been announced but not released and with other word processors that save in XML such as OpenOffice.org Writer.

And this week, I found that Bryan Wilhite, has been probing Brian Jones of Microsoft about how this XML support is supposed to work.

Here’s part of Brian Jones’ response in the comments on his site:

We designed the XML support so that you could leverage both WordML and your XML together. If there are features such as formatting, lists, and tables that Word already supports, then you don’t need to mark that up. Instead you can just take the subset of your schema that isn’t already represented by Word functionality, and only mark up with that.

Then you can just transform on the way out into your schema. At one point I had an example of doing this for DocBook, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. I’ll post it if I ever dig it up.

I think that if you’re looking at embedding “the subset of your schema that isn’t already represented by Word functionality” into Word then you should probably look for another authoring package. How are users going to fare trying to use obscure markup features of Word to do stuff Word doesn’t do natively (assuming they have a version of Word that can even undestand this stuff). And who’s going to pay for the programming you have to do to write your own interface.

And this hand-waving ‘just transform on the way out’ is NOT helpful. Let’s be clear about this, features such as formatting, lists and tables are going to be found in any document schema you name, but trivialising the conversion process with a glib ‘then you can just transform on the way out into your schema’ is very misleading. Formatting, list and table models are NOT built on some kind of universal grammar that allows painless transformation from one to the other.

I’d like to see Brian Jones’ mislaid DocBook converter. I can’t imagine such a thing working without at least a good set of styles, and in the case of something as big and complex as DocBook, maybe some fairly heavy duty macros as well.

My favorite conversion challenge is lists. How might we map from Word to XHTML lists?

Lists in Word have their own, complex representation in WordML (I thought it was called WordProcessingML), but there is no way that you could reliably map one to another without:

  • Creating some kind of guideline or template to control the way lists are expressed in Word.
  • Writing complex software to map the way lists work in WordML to the way they work in XHTML.

I did a quick experiment to see what lists look like in WordML. Took a bit longer than I had planned, ‘cos I was unable to find ’Save XML’ in Word 2004 on the Mac, and I had to go to Windows, but the result is nothing like XHTML, I can assure you. The good news, though, is that if you have defined styles for your formatting that do map to XHTML then you can write software to do the mapping from the styles without worrying about the way WordML handles lists at all, and it will only be complex if you try to do it in XSLT. Use styles.

PS The way WordML handles lists is much more rational than the way it’s done in OpenOffice. In Word a paragraph is the main container and properties like lists are referenced through the charmingly named w:pPr element. That is lists are implied structures.

(If you want to talk about w:pPr you can try John R. Durant’s weblog)

And did I mention Use styles?


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