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VISIT REPORT
"Portable documents: Acrobat, SGML and TeX"
Bridewell Theatre, London, 19 Jan 95
 
This joint meeting of the UK TeX Users Group and the BCS Electronic
Publishing Specialist Group attracted a large and mixed audience of
academics, TeX hackers, publishers, and software developers, with
representatives from most UK organizations active in the field of
electronic publishing and document management. I was expecting rather
more disagreement about the relative merits of the various approaches
now available for the creation of portable documents; in the event, the
path of SGML-based righteousness, with appropriate concessions to the
practical merits of PostScript-based systems, was apparently endorsed
by the consensus.
 
First of the seven speakers was David Brailsford from Nottingham
University, who described Adobe's Acrobat as "a de facto industry
standard". His presentation of exactly how the various components of
this product worked together, and could be made to interact with both
LaTeX and SGML, was very clear and refreshingly free of hype. The
choice of PDF (which is effectively a searchable and structured form of
Postscript, in which logical structure and hypertextual links are
preserved along with the imaging information) as an archival format was
a pragmatic one for journals such as EPodd where fidelity to every
detail of presentation was crucial.  The availability of a free Acrobat
reader was also a plus point. He characterized the difficulties of
mapping the logical links of a LaTeX or SGML document on to the
physical links instantiated in a PDF document as a classic case of the
importance of "late binding", and revealed the open secret that
Adobe's free PDF reader would soon be upgraded to recognise and act on
HTML-style anchors. A demonstration of the Acrobat-based electronic
journal project CAJUN is already available online at
http://quill.cs.nott.ac.uk.
 
David Barron, from Southampton, gave an excellent overview of what
exactly is implied by the phrase "portable document".  Documents are not
files, but compound objects, combining text, images, time-based media.
There is a growing awareness that electronic resources should be
regarded as virtual documents, repositories of information from which
many different actual documents may be generated. These developments
all make "portability" (defined as the ability to render documents --
with varying degrees of visual fidelity -- in different hardware or
software environments) very difficult. Portability was of crucial
importance, not only for publishers wishing to distribute in the
electronic medium, and not only for specific user communities wishing
to pool information, but also for all of us. Information available only
in a non-portable electronic form was information at the mercy of
technological change. He cited as portability success stories the
widespread use of PostScript and LaTeX as a distribution medium by the
research community, referring to the Physics preprint library at Los
Alamos as a case where this had now become the normal method of
publication. By contrast, the success of the World Wide Web seemed to
be partly due to its use of a single markup language (HTML) which
effectively takes rendering concerns entirely out of the hands of
authors. From the archival point of view, however, none of the
available standards seemed a natural winner: hypertext was still too
immature a technology, and there were still many intractable problems
in handling multiple fonts and character sets. Professor Barron
concluded with a brief summary of the merits of SGML as providing a
formal, verifiable  and portable definition for a document's structure,
mentioning in passing that Southampton are developing a TEI-based
document archive with conversion tools going in both directions
betweeen SGML and RTF, and SGML and LaTex. Looking to the future, he saw
the IBM/Apple Opendoc architecture as offering the promise of genuinely
portable dynamic documents, which could be archived in an SGML form once
static.
 
The third speaker of the morning, Jonathan Fine, began by insisting
that the spaces between words were almost as important as the words
themselves.       I felt that he wasted rather a lot of his time on
this point, as he did later on explaining how to pronounce "TeX"
(surely unnecessary for this audience) before finally describing a
product he is developing called "Simsim" (Arabic for sesame, which is a
trademark of British Petroleum we learned).  This appears to be a set of
TeX macros for formatting SGML documents directly, using components of
the ESIS to drive the formatter, but I did not come away with any clear
sense of how his approach differed from that already fairly widely
used elsewhere.
 
Peter Flynn, from University College Cork, did his usual excellent job
of introducing the Wondrous Web World, focussing inevitably on some of
its shortcomings from the wider SGML perspective, while holding out the
promise that there is a real awareness of the need to address them.
What the Web does best, in addition to storage and display of portable
documents, is to provide ways of hypertextually linking them. Its
success raises important and difficult issues about the nature of
publishing in the electronic age: who should control the content and
appearance of documents -- the user, the browser vendor, or the
originator? Publishing on the Web also raises a whole range of
fundamental and so far unresolved problems in the area of intellectual
property rights, despite the availability of effective authentication
and charging mechanisms. He highlighted some  well-known "attitude"
problems -- not only are most existing HTML documents invalid, but
no-one really cares -- and concluded that the availability of better
browsers, capable of handling more sophisticated DTDs, needed to be
combined with better training of the Web community for these to be
resolved.
 
The three remaining presentations, we were told after a somewhat
spartan lunch, would focus on the real world, which seemed a little
harsh on the previous speakers. Geeti Granger from John Wiley described
the effect on a hard-pressed production department of going over to the
use of SGML in the creation of an eight volume Chemical Encyclopaedia.
Her main conclusions appeared to be that it had necessitated more
managerial involvement than anticipated, largely because of the
increased complexity of the production process. She attributed this
partly to the need for document analysis, proper data flow procedures,
progress reports etc., though why these should be a consequence of
using SGML  I did not fully understand. More persuasively, she reported
the difficulty the project had had in finding SGML-aware suppliers, in
designing a DTD in advance of the material it described, in agreeing on
an appropriate level of encoding and in getting good quality typeset
output.
 
Martin Kay, from Elsevier, described in some detail the rationale and
operation of the Computer Aided Production system used for Elsevier's
extensive stable of academic journals. Authors are encouraged to submit
material in a variety of electronic forms, including LaTeX, for which
Elsevier provide a generic style sheet. Other formats are converted and
edited using an inhouse SGML-aware system (apparently implemented in
WordPerfect 5, though I may have misheard this). This uses their own
dtd, based on Majour, with extensions for maths, which seemed to be a
major source of difficulty. Documents will be archived in SGML or PDF
in something called an electronic warehouse, of which no details were
vouchsafed. Both PDF and SGML were seen as entirely appropriate formats
for online journals, CD-ROM and other forms of electronic delivery. The
advantages of SGML lay in its independence of the vagaries of
technological development, and its greater potential. However,
potential benefits always had to be weighed against current costs; like
any other business, Elsevier was not interested in experimentation for
its own sake.
 
The last speaker was Michael Popham, formerly of the SGML Project at
Exeter, and now of the CTI Centre for Textual Studies at Oxford. His
presentation did a fairly thorough demolition job on the popular notion
that there is still not much SGML-aware software in the world, starting
with a useful overview of the SGML context -- the ways in which SGML
tools might fit into particular parts of an enterprise -- and then
listing a number of key products organized by category. It was nice to
hear the names of so many real SGML products (auto-taggers, authoring
aids, page layout systems, transformation tools, document management
systems, browsers and parsers) being aired, after a long day obsessed
by Acrobat and LaTex. He concluded with a useful list of places  where
up-to-date product information can be found, and a reminder that the
field is rapidly expanding, with new tools appearing all the time.
 
The day concluded with an informal panel session, onto which I was
press ganged, which effectively prevented me from taking notes, but
also gave me the chance to promote the recently-published DynaText
version of the TEI Guidelines, which I did shamelessly. I also remember
Malcolm Clark asking, tongue firmly in cheek, why everyone couldn't
just use Word, and being somewhat agreeably surprised by the number of
people in the audience who were able to tell him the answer, and in no
uncertain terms. Other topics addressed included auto-tagging, whether
maths and formulae should be encoded descriptively or presentationally,
whether Microsoft will still be around in the next century, and whether
we would ever learn how to format documents for electronic presentation
as well as we could on paper.