X11R7.6 Documentation Improvements

Late last month (about three months late in fact, sorry about that), X.Org announced the release of X11R7.6. While the announcement, release notes, and changelog give details on all the changes that went into this release since the X11R7.5 release a year earlier, the one I worked on the most (aside from the work of producing and posting the modules to be released) was the modernization of the X documentation.

When the X.Org Foundation inherited stewardship of the X Window System, the documentation was in a wide variety of formats. The programs and most libraries included man pages in the traditional nroff format. The source tree also contained a large number of specifications of the protocols and libraries, and these were in a variety of formats, including troff, TeX, FrameMaker, and LinuxDoc. These were mostly optimized for print output and generated Postscript documents which were included in the releases since few people had all the tools necessary to process all of those, especially the commercial FrameMaker software. This also was a problem for developers who needed to update the docs, and either didn't know all the different formats or who didn't have tools like FrameMaker.

One of the early decisions of X.Org was that we wanted all our docs to be in open formats with open source toolchains. The format we decided to standardize on for the long form documents such as the specifications was DocBook, a open format that was already adopted by projects such as GNOME. Later, during the split of the monolithic X Window System, we decided that once the documents were converted, they would be moved to the modules that they documented, so that the documents would be updated and released in sync with the code. Over the following years, we made a little progress, converting a few documents here and there, but not making a serious dent.

In 2010 though, two volunteers really turned this around - Matt Dew converted the bulk of our specifications to DocBook/XML, and Gaetan Nadon integrated those into the modules and set up the autoconf macros and Makefile build rules to convert them to the various output formats in a standardized fashion. The xmlto tool is used as a front-end processor to drive backend tools including xsltproc and Apache FOP to generate output documents in text, html, PostScript, and/or PDF formats.

You can see the effects of this if you compare documents from the X11R7.5 release with some from the X11R7.6 release. For instance, in the html versions of the Xlib spec, not only has the formatting greatly improved from the 7.5 version to the 7.6 version, the new one also now has a hyperlinked table of contents and index, and many cross-reference links between individual sections. In the pdf version, the 7.5 version is a simple encapsulation of the postscript output that is at least nicely formatted since the original troff was designed for print output. In the 7.6 version, fop generated the output directly for PDF, and was able to produce output that took advantage of the additional features of PDF, such as including the same extended set of hyperlinks as the HTML version, and a set of "bookmarks" for quick navigation to sections listed in the table of contents.

If you're building the sources, there's a standardized set of configure flags to control the documentation tools used during the build, such as --with-fop to enable the use of fop to generate Postscript and PDF output or --without-fop to disable it. If you're installing prebuilt packages, you may find the documents in various formats provided in the module specific subdirectory of the documentation directory for your system, such as /usr/share/doc/libX11 for the documents provided with libX11. Even if the packager didn't preformat the html, text, or pdf for you, the default Makefiles install the xml versions there so you can format them when needed, or read online with a Docbook-viewing tool such as GNOME's Yelp.

While this is a huge step forward, we're not done yet. Many of the API docs still need to be converted from old-style K&R C prototypes to the ANSI C89 style used in the code base, and other formatting cleanups are needed. Matt is working on ways to not just have hyperlinked cross-references inside a single document, but across the documentation set. There's plenty of work to go around for additional people to help, such as improving the style-sheets, proofreading the documents to find more areas to fix, adding cross-references where they could be useful, so more help is always welcome. And of course, the huge pile of docs we have are almost exclusively developer focused - end user documentation is mainly limited to man pages, which aren't always as helpful as they could be, but we need user feedback to let us know the areas that need more help, since the developers don't have to rely on the man pages to figure out how to use the software, so don't notice the gaps.

But now at least we've got good momentum going, and I'm hopeful each future release will continue to show improvement.

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Engineer working on Oracle Solaris and with the X.Org open source community.

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