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Unix documentation is, at present, a mess.
Between man, ms, mm, TeX, Texinfo, POD, HTML, and DocBook, the documentation master files on modern Unix systems are scattered across eight different markup formats. There is no uniform way to view all the rendered versions. They aren't Web-accessible, and they aren't cross-indexed.
Many people in the Unix community are aware that this is a problem. At time of writing most of the effort toward solving it has come from open-source developers, who are more actively interested in competing for acceptance by nontechnical end users than developers for proprietary Unixes have been. Since 2000, practice has been moving toward use of XML-DocBook as a documentation interchange format.
The goal, which is within sight but will take a lot of effort to achieve, is to equip every Unix system with software that will act as a systemwide document registry. When system administrators install packages, one step will be to enter the package's XML-DocBook documentation into the registry. It will then be rendered into a common HTML document tree and cross-linked to the documentation already present.
Early versions of the document-registry software are already working. The problem of forward-converting documentation from the other formats into XML-DocBook is a large and messy one, but the conversion tools are falling into place. Other political and technical problems remain to be attacked, but are probably solvable. While there is not as of mid-2003 a communitywide consensus that the older formats have to be phased out, that seems the likeliest working out of events.
Accordingly, we'll next take a very detailed look at DocBook and its toolchain. This description should be read as an introduction to XML under Unix, a pragmatic guide to practice and as a major case study. It's a good example of how, in the context of the Unix community, cooperation between different project groups develops around shared standards.