Single-Sourcing My Life

I was determined to avoid email bankruptcy, the fate of Internet commentator and legal expert Lawrence Lessing. Lesson was so overwhelmed with the volume of emails he received that he sent a mass email back saying he’d probably be unable to respond.

My problem was not the volume of email, but the fact my contact information was spread out over many different files, and over several different computers. I use up to four different computers a week, so I knew I had to get my email on the Net. After much informational detective work, I consolidated all my contacts’ email addresses, phone numbers and other data into a single online location. It’s a beautiful thing.

You’ve Got Mail (And A Bunch of Other Stuff Too)

Of course, being an “info junkie”, I couldn’t stop at email. I also moved my web favorites online, as well as certain documents that I wanted to view and edit anywhere, just like this Blog. (This comes in handy when your teen-aged daughter kicks you off the computer.)

The Battle for Storage: Please Take It Offline

Clearly, online storage has its advantages. However, so does storing files locally, as the following list indicates:

Access to Files:
* Local Files: Limited to specific computer only
* Online Files: Any computer with Internet access

Application Features:
* Local Files: Many
* Online Files: Fewer, but growing

Application Updates:
* Local Files: Less frequent
* Online Files: More frequent, and often free!
Ability for others to comment and add metadata:
* Local Files: Limited
* Online Files: Widespread

Speed:
* Local Files: Fast
* Online Files: Slower, but getting faster

Security/Privacy:
* Local Files: Better
* Online Files: Potential risk

Backing up:
* Local Files: Must do
* Online Files: Somewhat optional; data is stored “off-site”

Potential for duplicate data:
* Local Files: High
* Online Files: None

If Internet connection is down:
* Local Files: Can still access files
* Online Files: The horror, the horror

As Internet speed, technology, features and security improve, more people will shift their information away from a specific machine and onto the Web. In fact, in the not too distant future, we’ll just log on to any machine anywhere, and have immediate access not only to all our files, but our entire desktop and all our custom settings and applications. The customizable websites of today (such as iGoogle, Yahoo and Facebook) are but a taste of tomorrow.

Lining Up Online and Offline

The amount of information we already access online is extraordinary. Banking sites, social and professional networking sites, and blogs are all accessible anywhere. Yet there is still much data trapped within our specific machines.

For example, I haven’t really single-sourced all my contact information. It’s still duplicated in Microsoft Works where I can create custom lists and reports, and again in the speed-dial information on my various phones. True single-sourcing would allow us to enter the information once and use it on any device, reformatting as necessary.
Feed Me

An excellent example of this type of content reuse is found in the wide variety of RSS readers. (This blog automatically creates an RSS feed.) All RSS feeds are in a standard XML format, allowing you to follow them using the readers (or browser) of your choice. Most importantly, you can change the appearance of the information, sort it and categorize it.

The Para-Docs

Now, technical communicators, being the “techie” types we are, are heavy creators and users of customized Internet data. This leads to a rather odd paradox.

During our personal time, we create and store data on the Internet, with all its inherent advantages. Then, during our working time, we manage documents that we can edit only on one computer – our company desktop or laptop. Even those of use who are lucky enough to work at home occasionally still have to schlep our laptop back and forth to work. Finally, the documents we work on are printed or packaged with the software. The layout and formatting are fixed and the content is frozen.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words – what’s wrong with words in this picture?

Some companies are beginning to realize the absurdity of creating documents that can become outdated moments after they are produced. As a result, these businesses are providing more of their content within secure online locations. PDFs and Word files may be quick and easy to produce, but they represent an antiquated model of communication.

Don’t Bury Me – I’m Not Dead Yet!

Of course, traditional documentation won’t completely die. They’ll always be a need for hard copies, especially for hardware and other equipment, where printed quick start and setup guides are essential. However, we will see more content shifting online, as companies strive to cut costs and stay current.

Don’t WORA, Be Happy!

Java developers say: write once, run anywhere (WORA) to indicate that they only have to write a program once and it will run correctly, regardless of the platform.

Information developers need to say: write once, access anywhere. Create, edit and read what you want, where you want, when you want and how you want. Otherwise, we’ll all be declaring documentation bankruptcy.

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