ArborText previews 7.0

December 20, 1996

The Seybold Report on Publishing Systems
Vol. 26, No. 8
December, 1996

If there is a market leader in the SGML editing marketplace, it is probably ArborText. (Privately held, its sales are not disclosed, and we have yet to find a reliable breakdown of vendor market share.) At this year’s event, ArborText asserted that position on the development front, previewing an important new version of its editing technology.

Adept 7.0, now in development and slated for release starting in the first quarter of 1997, was demonstrated in private showings during the conference. The new release will push the boundaries of its current technology in three significant directions: integration with component-level document managers; support for Asian languages and Unicode; and improvements to the way the Adept product itself is customized by users and integrators. ArborText was pledging that in this release it will bring to the PC platform the features of the 6.0 editor that were available only for Unix and OS/2. However, it has not made any commitment to bringing the composition product—ArborText Publisher—to Windows.

A Willow grows in Ann Arbor. "Willow" is the ArborText catch phrase that includes software components, business partnerships and a philosophy of lowering the threshold for component-level document management from within the Adept Editor. Previous releases of Adept (and other editors that interact solely with the file system) are awkward at handling document chunks. Typically, the document management system (DMS) constructs an actual document from stored components and feeds this newly created file as a single instance to the editor. When it comes time to save, the whole file must be shredded back into its component pieces, while still maintaining and tracking revisions. The back-and-forth is time-consuming and prone to errors, not to mention the fact that it requires a tedious amount of specialty integration work that is different for each document management system.

Because there is as yet no single market leader for SGML document management, it made sense for ArborText to develop a common approach that would work for several systems. In Willow, ArborText has developed an API that enables the text editor to interact directly with a variety of document management systems that can build subdocuments from components. For leading document management systems there will be off-the-shelf DMS Adapters to connect Adept to the specific DMS. For other systems, you can connect the editor by writing calls to the API.

Current Willow partners include DMS vendors Texcel, Chrystal Software (formerly XSoft), Xyvision, and Documentum and the Danish integration company CRI. Discussions are under way with a number of other potential partners, including integrators and end users.

In the 7.0 release, Adept is able to write changes to small portions of a document directly to the database, rather than writ-ing out an entire file to the file system. For navigation, the new Object Browser window complements the standard "File Open" dialog. Each DMS Adapter will include an Object Browser that displays the hierarchical tree or outline representation favored by the DMS (see photo, p. 5). A Documentum Object Browser, for example, would show a database with file cabinets, folders, documents and objects within those documents. Willow will assemble the proper pieces into a single compound document that looks like one seamless whole within the editing environment.

(Because Adept requires a precompiled DTD to enforce structured editing, the DMS needs to hand Adept a "context string" along with an object. The context string identifies the object's position relative to the DTD, so that Adept can work with a fragment.) A user can bring a virtual document into the editor, even when lacking permission to access all components of the document. While viewing the whole, the user can check out and actively edit only those pieces that he or she has rights to, if they are not checked out to another user. Willow, interacting with the database, tracks permissions and check-in/check-out status, enabling users to change both document content and metadata, such as status, about the object.

A user can have multiple compound documents and multiple objects checked out simultaneously and can check out just an object rather than the compound document that includes that object. On check-in (which is the equivalent of a save, although Adept does interim saves to prevent data loss), Willow tracks which component pieces have changed and hands back only the changed objects to the DMS.

Willow DMS Adapters should be fast, direct links between the editor and the DMS. ArborText also plans to develop a DMA Adapter compliant with the Open Document Management API (ODMA), a standard, file-based means of interfacing editors and document managers. It would be slower than Willow, but would work across different document management systems. ArborText also plans to work actively with the committee behind ODMA to enhance the API to implement Willow-like capabilities into the standard.

DataBlade. Reaching out to document managers, this time with a buzzsaw instead of a branch, ArborText has written an SGML DataBlade, a plug-in module for the Informix Universal Server, the object-relational database based on Illustra technology. (See Vol. 1, No. 1, of The Seybold Report on Internet Publishing for detailed coverage of Illustra and its DataBlade concept.)

DataBlades provide access methods for specific data types stored and managed by the Illustra server. Each blade provides its own functionality, and blades can be used in parallel. The Verity DataBlade, for example, provides Verity search-and-retrieval functions for text stored and tracked by the Universal Server.

What does the SGML blade do? Not much, in the first release, which is now in the early beta stage. But PG Bartlett, vice president of marketing at ArborText, promises that the limited functionality of release 1 will be beefed up in release 2. The blade now in beta identifies SGML as a data type, validates it, associates document instances with document types, and stores and retrieves pieces of documents at the object granularity. Searching is a simple text and wildcard string search and is not SGML-structure aware. ArborText has yet to test its blade in parallel with others.

Unicode-based Asian Version. Release 7.0 is actually two separate executables: the standard version and the Asian version. The Standard version supports English and the same European languages currently supported by release 6. The Asian version, based on the Unicode character set, will initially support Japanese and European languages, with support for other Asian character sets added in future upgrades. It will be released first for the Japanese versions of Sun Solaris and later for the Japanese NT. One disappointment is that the initial release is not localized; that is, its menus, icons and messages are in English, although markup and text editing is in Japanese.

The method for input depends on the input editor supplied by the operating system; Bartlett said Adept will support all that are currently on the market. The Asian version of Adept 7.0 supports Kana (simplified), not Kanji (ideographs), fonts.

With the addition of new language support, ArborText has added style-sheet "formats," which group language-specific style sheets into a common set. Changes to parameters in the base format can be applied automatically to all style sheets within the set.

Visual ACL. Release 7.0 improves the Adept Developer toolkit by adding the Visual Adept Command Language ("Visual ACL"), a fourth-generation language tool based on the popular Galaxy software from Visix Software. Visual ACL incorporates earlier ACL functionality, and is backward compatible, but it provides cross-platform graphical user interface tools that ArborText has lacked. With these tools, users can modify their Adept toolbar and add or modify dialog boxes, including a full range of "widgets" such as combination boxes, scroll bars, radio buttons and spinners.

In Boston ArborText demonstrated a custom dialog box for forms-based data entry. Its dialog box could be populated from an array, another dialog or a document. Text and data entered in this manner were validated as SGML on output from the dialog. Adept Developer works with Adept Editor and Adept Publisher.

Still not whistling DSSSL. ArborText, one of only two vendors to support the CALS Output Specification that preceded DSSSL, has not rushed to embrace the new, more generic standard. The company says it intends to support DSSSL, but it has not yet committed to what form that will take. Release details. The standard version of release 7.0 is due in the second quarter of 1997 for all current platforms; it is free to customers under maintenance contracts.

Release Details. The Asian version will be rolled out in separate releases, with the Adept Editor, Publisher and Document Architect coming out first on the Solaris 2.4 platform in the second quarter, followed by the Adept Editor for NT. Pricing for the Asian version will be about 20% higher than for the standard one. There is no word yet on when the new developer toolkit will be available or what it will cost. The price of DMS adapters will vary, but it should be in the range of $200 per seat. The price of the SGML DataBlade, which is currently undergoing beta testing, has not been set.

Our take. Release 7.0 takes ArborText up an important step toward integrated systems. Rather than building document management tools itself, it is working with a variety of partners to make the whole connection process much easier on integrators and end users. It is an important effort because until now the only such integration has happened within a single vendor's product line (e.g., Interleaf's) or through considerable pain on the part of the document management vendor (e.g., Xyvision, Texcel, etc.). The Willow approach should help all parties by reducing the development and integration effort needed to tie these systems together in a way that is productive for end users. Bartlett summed it up nicely: "Willow allows editing a compound document consisting of multiple objects as if it were a single document." Until the industry can see enough commonality across editors to develop a single API, Willow represents a sensible tack that most SGML-editing-tool vendors would do well to emulate.

In another sense, ArborText is the first editing-tool vendor to commercialize "component editing," a marked departure from the file-based editing approach that dominates the marketplace. In this regard, its work in SGML components actually foreshadows a move we think will come to the entire market—that is, a shift from file-based editing to object-based editing. Not many document-management systems are yet SGML aware, but many will soon be object aware. In that sense, Adept 7, in conjunction with the Object Browser, is a peek into the future of content-driven editorial systems in general, not just those for SGML.