HATs Off to XML Help

Apr 03, 2007

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I have been trying to understand the past and likely future of topic-based authoring. This is structured writing of content in which you break down the content into topics or "chunks" which have a good chance of making sense when standing alone. Single-source structured content is more reusable and localizable.

The idea is that you then assemble those topics, using "maps" which are like a table of contents. Rearrange the references to topics in the TOC map, click "build," and you create a new version of your document, often in multiple output formats like HTML, PDF, and Help, and in multiple languages.

The real magic comes when you have different maps for different purposes. You can even have one map with conditions on the topics. Include Topic A when the audience is Advanced, Topic B when the audience is Beginner.

Market Maneuvers
If you think I am talking about DITA XML, you are right. But everything I say is true also of Help Authoring Tools (HAT), which for decades have been authoring topics and assembling them to provide the Help systems we get with our software. The classic look of a Help system is a left-hand pane with three views--the TOC, index, and search--and topics selected in the right pane.

So I took a look at the HAT market (about $50 million/year) to see what relationship there was between Help authoring, XML, and DITA. If you are not providing online help to customers and clients, preferably in the native languages of all your major markets, you are risking your future.

Two key Help tools are Adobe RoboHelp and Madcap Flare, which, at a glance, look like kissing cousins. Upon closer look, they're a bit more like estranged cousins. A few years ago, Macromedia acquired eHelp, the creators of RoboHelp through 15 major releases. Then mysteriously, they fired the developers and froze the product at version RH X5. Most of the original team has since launched a new company and created Madcap Flare, which in one year has earned a significant market share of HAT tools, though the aging RoboHelp is still more widely used, and other mature tools like DoctoHelp and WebWorks have comparable shares.

Then, a year ago, Adobe acquired Macromedia. Adobe's classic publishing business group, which includes Framemaker, a leading single-source structured authoring tool, packed the old RoboHelp code off to a new development team in India. In early 2007, they released RoboHelp version 6 (X6 by the old number system), making many RoboHelp users breath a sigh of relief after nothing new for nearly three years.

Tool Time
I installed Flare 2.5 ($899) and RoboHelp 6 ($999) and put them through their paces. Flare creates its files in XHTML (a dialect of XML) and call its WYSIWYG editor the XML Editor. The team has added several excellent features, including better Framemaker import/export than even the new RoboHelp and a document structure view that allows you to drag and drop elements.

RoboHelp still exports in more Help formats. Most of these are fading. With Vista, Microsoft has abandoned WinHelp. Neither RH nor Flare yet does the new MS Vista Help, which, like once dominant MS HTML Help, will be limited to Internet Explorer. Madcap developed DotNet help for Microsoft Visual Studio and Word 2007 compatibility, but it requires a proprietary viewer download. Both tools do browser- and platform-independent WebHelp, the emerging standard. Both now offer command-line compilations, conditional text, and user-defined variables. Flare adds valuable snippets, large blocks of reusable content. Both offer fast full-text search, but Flare highlights the found text and ranks results by relevance. Flare's master pages are more powerful than RoboHelp headers and footers.

RoboHelp now uses Adobe code to create higher-quality PDFs (it bundles Adobe Elements) with support for hyperlinks and bookmarks. Its FlashHelp adds sexy eye candy. RoboHelp includes a RoboSource Control versioning for author teams and the Server version generates great report metrics that can help you promote the most important help topics, in a FAQ for example.

RoboHelp Capture is a built-in tool for grabbing screenshots. Madcap made Capture a separate ($89) program. I found Madcap Capture resizes images with much higher quality than RoboHelp Capture, but neither tool can resize gifs in the main Help interface without destroying text in the images. Both tools have source code text editors. The RoboHelp editor is excellent, with color highlighting, but might scare some code-phobic technical writers.

Adobe Captivate ($599, formerly RoboDemo) and Madcap Mimic ($299) are screen-recording tools, similar to TechSmith Camtasia ($299), that create multimedia training experiences to complement Help. All three create Flash output and Mimic adds an improved compression option that uses a proprietary movie player. Madcap is also introducing Blaze, a head-on competitor for Framemaker ($799).

With Madcap emphasizing XML, can DITA XML in Flare be far behind? Adobe's Framemaker has added excellent DITA support, can we assume that DITA is high priority for a future RoboHelp? AuthorIT, a full-fledged CMS that is very popular with many Help developers, has included DITA for some time.

At our March meeting of the Boston DITA Users Group, we discussed purely web-based tools for authoring and publishing DITA to PDF and HTML, now being tested at the DITA Users website. In order to publish DITA directly to web-based Help, we are exploring IBM's open-source, server-based Eclipse Help.

In all these cases, we see Help is on the way to XML and DITA.