Syntext Serna XML WYSIWYG Editor

Reviewed by: Thomas V. Kappel, February 2004, send e-mail
Published by: Syntext, Inc., go to the web site
Requires: Windows or Linux
MSRP: $299.00 (single user, single platform), $374.00 (single user, dual platform), $45.00 (academic educational)

I was wrong, very wrong! I made assumptions before going in and using the Serna XML Editor program from Syntext and assumptions can cloud your judgment and cause you to view and evaluate something incorrectly. At the same time though, Serna was exciting, interesting and somewhat educational to try.

To get some basic definitions out of the way, eXtensible Mark-up Language (XML), is a specification developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). XML is a pared-down version of Standard Generalised Mark-Up Language (the foundation of HTML and the world wide web), designed especially for Web documents. It allows designers to create their own customized tags, enabling the definition, transmission, validation, and interpretation of data between applications and between organizations. An example of XML customization was implemented in 2003 by the U.S. House of Representatives. A committee issued a list of XML tags to be used for Web forms on Member Web sites and other Web sites that send e-mail to congressional offices. The purpose of these forms is to enable correspondence management systems (CMS) and other software to easily identify and process types of information such as name, city, state, zip code, issue, etc., which will help make the software more efficient and more effective. The tags will help CMS vendors that do not currently offer the ability to process incoming e-mail provide this feature.

I think I went wrong partly because of Serna's description: “Syntext Serna is an XML Documentation WYSIWYG editor that allows casual users and professional authors to create and maintain complex XML documents as easy as in a conventional word processor [...] Serna removes this obstacle by hiding XML behind the familiar façade of a wordprocessor, making XML editing accessible not only to professional technical writers, but also managers, clerks and non-technical users in fields as diverse as law, finance, government, manufacturing and engineering.”

Hey, this is great! I'm a writer and can do words on a page and I cut my computer writing teeth on a single disk WordPerfect floppy. I have used word processors of all kinds for years. I can create web pages in HTML text and have done so from the early days of the Web. eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is hot technology, text based, and here they have a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor for the causal user - me! Serna can't be that hard. I don’ need no steenkin' user guide, short quick-reference guide, or developers guide (all provided free on the product web site - all of which should have been a clue).

Yep! I was wrong! I blissfully opened the program and sure enough, there was a wordprocessing style of interface and more, much more. I played with it and tried to use it and opened the samples provided and tried to create a simple page on the fly without the help files or the manuals. It didn't work. Serna is not, to me at least, an intuitive work-without-reading-the-manual kind of program.

I opened a sample document and down the left side of the screen was what appeared to be an outline in a tree form. In the center of the screen was not code or text, but the WYSIWYG page created from the information in the left frame. I use outlines quite often to write my articles and reviews. I could do this. I knew this. Well, not the way this program works, albeit strangely close.

Word processors use templates. Web creation and display programs use style sheets. Serna, and I'm going to walk cautiously here, claims to use open publishing standards during the whole authoring process and not templates or style sheets. I opened a beautiful article sample with the tree already created and an outlined page in the center section waiting for the context of the article to be added (typed in, copied in, dragged in). I typed a few paragraphs pretending to write an article. It sure looked and acted to me more like a style sheet than a template. It also felt cramped, as though I was filling out a form. That feeling may stem more from my word processing background based on writing a document in whole and then formatting it afterward. In this case the document was already formatted and I had to insert my writing. As I said, interesting, educational and strangely familiar, but different.

I didn't create a document from a blank page - from scratch. I couldn't figure out how to do it without going to the users guide or quick reference guide, which I did. I was to my horror immediately pulled down into an XML programmer's world. Words such as XML Schema, DTD, document metadata and writing scripts began on page one. What happened to the easy-to-use part?

Okay, I was getting a little disgruntled with the program. This isn't going to be as easy as I had assumed (marketing pople take note: watch your language!). Here’s a partial quote from the 1.2 users guide (not the programmers guide): “Serna uses (unmodified) GNU Aspell spell checker that is coming with GNU LGPL license - the spelling library aspell-*.*, located in bin directory of the installation and to files residing in spell/data files.” I was looking for instructions on how to start with a blank page and step-by-step instructions for using the program. Information was there, but certainly not in the form that I desired.

I printed out a few of their not-templates and not-style sheet examples and these looked great. I'm sure a programmer created them for the company. I would love to be able to create nice looking documents easily with a wordprocessor-like XML program. I do believe it is the future of document creation. I just couldn't do much with this version of the program.

If I had the time to learn XML programming, I'm sure that Serna would make a wonderful tool which would serve me well. But I'm not a programmer. The Serna documents sure looked great and - sigh - I would love to be writing this right now with their program, but I'm not. Here is where I finally realized my assumptions were wrong. This wasn't designed for the casual user. I'm certain the major market for this software is experienced XML programmers looking to make their work easier.

If you know programming, XML or otherwise, and can use a program like this to make your work easier and faster, then download the trial and give it a try. Do it especially if you work in a business environment where XML is becoming priority and important. This program could be a real time saver and make writing XML documents much easier, once you know how. Me, I'm afraid I'm going to have to wait a while. My word processor’s newest version says it can save in XML. I'm going to check that out next.

Letters to the Editor are welcome and occasionally abused in public. Send e-mail to:




© Copyright 2000-2006 All rights reserved. legal notice
home | previous reviews | forums | about us | search | store | subscribe


Forums Search Home Previous Reviews About Us Store Subscribe