TOC Day 3: Parallels between software development and content development

Update: My apologies to Jonathan Stowe (and his boss!) for goofing on his title.

During a session this afternoon at TOC on “Beta BooksTonya Engst talked about how they treat the versions of their books much like versions of software — version 1.1, version 1.2, etc. Their beta/early-access program is just an extension of that, down to the 0.5 stage.

I was really glad to hear Tonya use that analogy, because it’s one that’s popped up a few times during TOC. In particular, during a tutorial I was part of on Monday (along with Thomson Learning Higher Education CTO/SVP Jonathan Stowe), Jonathan had some great things to say during the tutorial about how the development and creation of many of the products and services that complement the books Thomson is producing has to some extent turned them into software and service developers as well as a book publisher. However, he noted that the linear nature of traditional publishing workflows doesn’t fit well with the iterative nature of software development.

There’s an increasing need for an iterative approach to content development, one that includes the ability to rapidly update and incorporate changes in response to constantly changing needs and expectations — in fact, an approach that is very similar to the way that software has been developed for a very long time. While we’re usually pretty good at picking up the trends of alpha geeks, it’s only recently that we’ve fully understood how useful and important the practices of software development are to publishers’ content development; practices like using robust version control and branching/tagging. I’ve been trying to look at each edition we publish as essentially a “tag” (in the Subversion sense), and the ability to rapidly update/correct content means there’s plenty of need to keep working on the “trunk” long after the first edition has published, and long before the second is ready for revision. It’s the Web 2.0 principle of the perpetual beta brought to book-style content. (Sure, wikis do this, but for now at least, they’re not the right tool for the job for most publishers.)

A common thread, both in the Beta Books session, and in one on Collaborative Writing that followed it, was that currently, most of the tools available for doing this are in fact the tools used by software developers, which can present a steep learning curve for an author. We’ll be watching this space closely for TOC 2008.