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31 March 1997

Other articles by:
Nancy Ferris

17 March 1997
The Air Force goes paperless

Nancy Ferris

DOD Computing
DOD builds virtual archives

With Panorama Pro, Defense automates document conversion to SGML

 Special to GCN

 Say you're newly assigned to run the mail room at an Air Force Combat Command installation. Once on base, you head for your new office and look around for the book that tells you how to do your new job.

 What you find is a tattered copy of the 1987 Defense Department Official Mail Manual and a disorganized heap of supplements from the Air Force and AFCC. You spend hours with an aide, inserting the new pages 27 through 31 in place of the old, marking in the corrections on Page 52 and appending the new sections, but it's tough to trace the disjointed instructions.

 In the end, you give up, saying to yourself, "When the inspector general's staff comes to write me up, I'm sure they'll tell me the correct way to do it."

 That scenario got a knowing chuckle from the audience when Lt. Col. Carl F. Vercio, an Air Force officer assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, laid it out last month at a meeting on electronic publishing tools.

 Chief of the Automated Document Control Branch of the Correspondence and Directives Directorate at the Pentagon, Vercio described how his office is developing a common electronic publishing format that the services can share to reduce the flood of paper and the problems associated with handling and managing that paper.

 DOD, the Air Force and Army have embraced the Standard Generalized Markup Language as the foundation of their electronic publications, at least in the area of manuals and directives. 

Vercio said the Navy and other DOD agencies are less wedded to SGML, which is an official DOD standard.

 SGML dialects?

 SGML is a sound foundation, Vercio said, but the services are implementing it differently. His office is trying to change that as it publishes Defense Department directives on the World Wide Web and in other electronic formats. Because the services commonly modify DOD directives for their own needs, the Pentagon staff is investigating how to establish a virtual repository of all the directives and modifications so that they are readily accessible.

 The tool they are using is Panorama Pro software from SoftQuad Inc. of Toronto. The software automates SGML document preparation and supports online publishing, including searching. Pan-orama Pro also generates a table of contents that automatically is updated whenever the document is changed. 

Vercio said this feature was useful for scanning document contents. Using the contents list, a user can select one section of a large document to print.

 Web publishing is based on Hypertext Markup Language, a subset of SGML that lacks some of SGML's functionality. HTML is changing as the Web develops, Vercio said, so it lacks the advantages of standardization. On the other hand, HTML browsers do not support SGML. Web browsers are common, but SGML ones are not.

 That's one reason the Pentagon chose SoftQuad's products. The company has made a free Panorama viewer plug-in for Microsoft Internet Explorer and for Netscape Navigator available on the Internet so that anyone can get it and view DOD directives.

 "We can't charge Joe Civilian out there to come in and access our information," Vercio said at last month's meeting in Washington.

 SoftQuad representatives attending the meeting said the free viewer was a trial offer good for only 30 days. Vercio said he told the company that if it does not offer a free viewer, they can no longer do business together.

 SoftQuad's Roberto Drassinower indicated the company would be flexible about this stance, which he said reflected the need for revenues to support continuing product improvement.

 As an alternative, the Pentagon could use the Acrobat products from Adobe Systems Inc., whose free viewer already is in wide use. But Adobe's proprietary Portable Document Format is not SGML. 

Also, military publishing officials describe building the hypertext links among PDF files as more difficult than doing the same task in SGML.

 Links are the key to online publishing as Vercio sees it. Rather than replicate documents and pieces of documents on many servers, he said, they should simply build robust SGML links among them. 

His goal, he said, is to reach the point "where we start looking at the policies as bits of information" in an information base, rather than as conventional documents. 

With the information in this format, the user can obtain the information readily no matter where he is or where the information resides. 

But if the Army and Pentagon, for example, are going to link to each other's documents and have them appear unified to a reader, they must have a common electronic format.

 IT on the battlefield

 "We will use the services and everybody that's in this realm" of DOD policy directives to come up with such shared formats, Vercio said. 

Vercio said he hopes OSD will create a new office to tackle the program.

 "Once documents no longer are supplied in print, how will military units on the front lines get the information?" someone from the audience asked. 

Most military units already take CD-ROM drives to the battlefield, Vercio replied. 


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