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HTML Help: Make It So
1997, July (March 12, 2007)
By Ann-Marie Grissino

An online help revolution is moving through our ranks at warp speeds. What's the revolution all about and where is it heading? This spring Help University brought experts to Chapel Hill from around the world to answer these questions, bringing the revolution right here to our backyards.

Top-notch Speakers

Conference speakers came from companies such as Netscape, Microsoft, WexTech (the company the produces Doc-to-Help), ForeFront, Novell, and Blue Sky (the company that produces RoboHelp) and from other locations throughout the U.S. and abroad. According to John Garison, Help University's Director of Corporate Communication, attendance was fantastic, the audience was tremendously enthusiastic, and speakers had a great time.

The conference opened with a head-spinning presentation given by Ralph Walden, known as the WinHelp Wizard from Microsoft (he created HTML Help). With unquestioned authority, he charged through HTML-based help concepts. Next, attendees dove into "Understanding ActiveX Controls" with Steve Wexler from WexTech. Then, presentations such as "Context-Sensitive Help for the Mere Mortal," "CGI Scripts in HTML-based Help," and "Keyword Indexing" brought us to a much-needed lunch break.

HTML-based Help Systems

The conference speakers proclaimed that online help in RTF form will go away and that the revolution will march towards HTML-based help. About 24 out of the 31 presentations included HTML topics. The HTML buzz was everywhere: vendor showcases, lunch, and dinners out in Chapel Hill.

For example, HTML-based help employs secondary, embedded, tri-pane, and popup windows. (Thank goodness! Until recently, there was no easy way to use our wonderful WinHelp popup windows in HTML.) Secondary windows can be docked, embedded, or customized. Navigation controls include a table of contents (often seen as a sidebar on the left), an index, full-text search (when using ActiveX and compiled HTML functionality), and related topics (as both author-time and run-time jumps). You can show your table of contents as an expandable tree and easily indicate that a topic is new.

HTML-based help lets you customize information types. You can specify that your help shows different information to different audiences or displays only specific product components based on purchases. Microsoft's Walden emphasized that information typing as a tool has not yet been fully explored and will continue to evolve.

Much discussion revolved around compressed and compiled HTML. You can compile your HTML-based help with or without compression and can compile portions of your help (incremental compilation). Although Steve Wexler advised attendees to "learn some HTML now," he predicted that HTML tools will be more WSIWYG within the year. He also stated that Winhelp developers "are extremely wellpositioned" to go into HTML development (Yes, we're ready!).

Francine Hyman of Communitec cautioned us that HTML-based help is not yet ready for prime time and that browser conflicts are far from resolved. She told us that "RTF is not a dirty word" and reminded us that we still need to get our work done using RTF-based tools.

HTML-based help brings new concepts, jargon, and technologies. Help University claimed that the "online communication industry has continued its lightning-speed evolution." The conference merely opened the door. Stay tuned.

Experts Give Product Updates

Microsoft touts its HTML Help Workshop as the tool for authoring, indexing, and compiling help systems. However, according to one expert, its initial release (expected in early summer) is akin to a "glorified Notepad." Walden noted that we should "expect tool vendors to provide additional HTML authoring capabilities." Here are some other product tidbits: an Adobe spokesperson claimed that Adobe's HotTaMaLe, the new plug-in for FrameMaker, is better than WebWorks Lite Filter (HotTaMaLe converts Frame files into HTML) and discussion also focused on Java versus ActiveX controls and Netscape versus Internet Explorer and which will win the HTML-based help battle. The jury wavers on these issues.

As knowledge transfer experts, we're charged with keeping up with technological advances and guiding our companies in a direction that will take them across rocky transitions during the next few years with as much ease as possible. As John Garison put it, we're sensing "the puff before the train." Conferences such as the one sponsored by Help University benefit us greatly. Keep em coming.

By Ann-Marie Grissino, Principal of Keypoint Consultants, a documentation and media design firm. Ann-Marie can be reached at keypoint at mindspring dot com. End of article.

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