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And before you get too exercised, please read the post, date 9 Feb 2006, titled "All Tools Suck".

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Need a WebTV Replacement

Some years ago now I set my father up with WebTV. It met his needs perfectly: it gave him email and Web access from his TV (he spends most of his time in front of his TV), it was reliable, it didn't require him to learn how to use a computer generally, and it didn't require any support from me (my father is in Tacoma, Washington and I'm in Austin, Texas, so I can't just pop over to provide hands-on support).

My father is not tech savy--he used a manual typewriter to produce a club newsletter for years until the club finally forced him to upgrade to an electric typewriter. He refuses to carry a mobile phone or use ATMs. You get the idea. However, he depends on email and e-bay so he has to have some sort of Internet access.

Unfortunately, while Microsoft has not completely abandoned WebTV, they have not enhanced it in years and clearly have no intention of doing so--you can't even download the emulator they used to provide.

The problem for my father is that WebTV is simply no longer up to the task of supporting modern Web sites and it's becoming harder and harder for him to use e-bay and other Web sites, like Amazon or Flicker. And forget about Facebook.

My quandry is what to replace WebTV with. So far I haven't been able to identify any obvious good solutions. The Wii's Web browser is close but it's still pretty clunky--even with a keyboard I don't think it would be reliable or simple enough for my dad--it requires a lot of wimote fiddling to scroll and pan around Web sites that don't fit nicely on a screen.

AppleTV would seem likely except that it doesn't come out of the box with a Web browser and I'm not going to support a hack that adds one.

A Mac mini might serve, but that gets us into the having a full computer problem, and I'm not sure my dad's TV takes HDMI input (I need to find out about that).

It seems like the new tablets that are all the buzz of the gadget world might serve, especially the rumored Apple tablet, but I'm not sure my dad would be willing to drop a grand on it, and I'm not keen to have him be an early adopter.

But I feel like I'm missing some obvious technology choice. Anyone out there have any thoughts about how to provide a TV-connected Web browser that is easy to use, works reliably, and will work with modern Web sites?

PDF2 Transform Now Enabled for Plugin-Based Extension

In the latest 1.5 Toolkit distributions, the PDF2 transform has been enabled for plugin-based extension. This means that you can use normal plugin techniques to provide extensions to the PDF processing that support specializations or global overrides, rather than customizations for specific publication sets or book designs.

As originally implemented, the PDF2 processor could only be extended through its unique Customization facility, whereby you either add things to its built-in Customization directory or create copies of that directory and then specify where the Customization directory is as a parameter to the transform. This is appropriate for customizations that are not global, that is, they are specific to particular publications, sets of publications, products, or whatever.

It is not appropriate, however, for providing general extensions, such as support for new domains where the domain-specific processing would normally be the same in all outputs or where the base processing is the same but can be customized using the normal PDF2 customization facilities.

In the latest DITA 1.5 Toolkit, you can now have both plugin-provided extensions as well as Customization-based extensions. This makes it easy to provide generic PDF2 support for specializations or provide global overrides for existing topic and map types.

A PDF2-extending plugin can provide only overrides, or only a Customization directory or both.

For example, for DITA for Publishers, I've started implementing support for the Publication Map (pubmap) map domain, which is similar to bookmap but tailored for Publishers. To support the PDF2 transform, I've created a plugin that provides both general extensions and a base Customization directory that can be used as a basis for local customizations.

The directory structure of the plugin is:

Where the Customization/ directory follows the rules and conventions for the PDF2 Customization directories and xsl/ holds the plugin-provided XSLTs that extend the base PDF2 processing.

The plugin.xml file looks like this:

<plugin id="">
<require plugin=""/>
<require plugin=""/>
<require plugin=""/>
<feature extension="dita.xsl.xslfo"
value="xsl/pubmap2xslfo.xsl" type="file"/>

The elements are indicating dependencies on other PDF2-extending plugins for the different domains that DITA For Publishers provides.

The line is what integrates the XSLTs into the main PDF2 XSLT transforms and it works just as for the HTML plugins, namely, the integrator.xml Ant tasks adds an xsl:include of the plugin-provided XSLT module into the main PDF2 transform shell XSLT.

One thing that plugin-provided PDF2 transforms can do is define additional customization points: named attribute sets, named variables, and new XSLT modes, which can then be customized using the normal PDF2 customization mechanisms.

In the case of the pubmap extensions, I've extended the XSLT so that publication maps produce the same output as bookmaps (that is, a pubmap-d/chapter topicref goes through the same base processing as a bookmap/chapter topicref) and added support for DITA for Publishers-specific topic types, in particular, sidebar, which gets a box around it by default (XSL-FO 1.1 can't render multi-page floats, which would be the ideal way to render sidebars).

This enhancement to the PDF2 processor, along with the many other improvements made by the Suite Solutions team, makes it much easier to extend and customize the processor and, in particular, support new domains and topic types. The Customization process is as it was, but now you only need to use XSLT in your customization when you need truly customization-specific processing (for example, generating a publication-specific title page or copyright page).