I completed a writing assignment with a small startup company where I revamped the approach to product documentation to emphasize short article-length documents that are preferred for posting to the Web (as if anyone really read book-oriented PDF documents cover to cover anyway).
The company that hadn’t made revisions to their existing product documentation in over a year (and is planning for a new product release real soon now). It’s the same startup where I spoke to the engineering manager about the use of open source authoring tools (see my post Bottom Line). The discussion eventually evolved into my proposal to use open source software as a “free” (or at least low-cost) alternative to the expensive per-user licensing and support contracts that are required for commercial tools such as FrameMaker and RoboHelp. In a time when companies need to get the biggest “bang for the buck”, OpenOffice (or variants such as StarOffice and Lotus Symphony) may be all that a small to medium sized company needs to create the short article-length documents that are preferred for posting to the Web (as if anyone really read book-oriented PDF documents cover to cover anyway).
So, I started with a situation where there were no source files for the documentation that shipped with the last software release, no clear idea of which versions of the authoring tools were used, and no real incentive to spend the $999 for the current version of RoboHelp or FrameMaker. My first real task was to take the last available FrameMaker 7 source documents archived from an older software release, buy an older compatibile version of FrameMaker (at only $499), and eventually export RTF files that could be used with OpenOffice before any updates and revisions could actually be incorporated. Along the way, I contended with authoring tools issues (such as template formatting, conditional text, and PDF export) that are not within the expertise of the average technical writer, and I found that the “free” technical support to be minimal.
A pleasant benefit of using open-source software such as OpenOffice is that no expensive upgrade was required in order to extend OpenOffice with the ability to import and export PDF files (included in version 3.1) or to import and export wiki formats (contributed by community members). Perhaps the needs of the startup where I work are not as complex as my former employer that maintained a large knowledge base with expensive single-source structured authoring tools. However, through the collaborative efforts on open source software, the bottom line seems to be that low budget does not necessarily mean low tech.