As a long-time scientific researcher, HTML trainer, Blackboard user, blogger and wiki contributor, I have used quite a few mark-up languages. At any moment I can switch from LaTeX to XHTML to MediaWiki markup with relative ease but I suspect that my colleagues and my students would have more problems. The trend in Web Applications seems to be towards the provision of a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editing tool which can vary in complexity from the relatively simple toolbar provided by Word-Press for this blog to fully functioning “Word Replacements” like the one provided by Google docs.
However, when you’ve used a web application for any length of time, you quickly find that the apparent compatibility with a full-featured desktop word processors is fairly thin-skinned and for maximum control you need to get behind the display to the markup code. There is quite a bit of variation, and I suspect, a fair amount of possible end-user confusion in the choice of code that you’ll find there.
For most content editing tools that are used at Swansea University, for example Blackboard, Peanut Butter Wiki, and Word-Press, the underlying markup is actually HTML, the markup of the World-Wide Web. However, though relatively simple, HTML is not the simplest possible form of markup that there is, and it’s quite easy to get wrong. Some tools are more strict than others when it comes to rejecting invalid markup; and this has the unfortunate effect that the stricter they are, the harder they will be for an untrained user to get right! Many wiki tools, (DokuWiki, MediaWiki and TiddlyWiki are the ones I use personally) use a special form of markup called Wikitext, which is somewhat easier to create without tool support, but varies enormously in complexity, useability and compatibility. Somewhere in between are markups that other blogging tools use, for example Markdown and Textile.
With so much choice, what is the poor user to do? More importantly, what should our system providers be looking at when making a choice? In a series of articles to follow, I intend to look at this issue, providing examples of the mark-up languages available, their usage, and pros and cons. Hopefully this will be useful for both end-users struggling to understand their content editors and system administrators who need to make informed choices on behalf of their users.
Your comments and suggestions are of course welcomed!
Chris Jobling May 6th, 2008
Posted In: web content
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