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Toil and Trouble: HTML Help and NetHelp
1997, November (February 23, 2007)
By Ann-Marie Grissino, Principal of Keypoint Consultants, a documentation and media design firm

Toil and trouble. That's what this year's online help crystal ball predicts. It shows two flavors of HTML-based help and to make matters worse, their names are confusing: HTML help (which is not the same as HTML-based help) and NetHelp. Oh, me nerves. Well, let's try to calm ourselves and explore these new concepts.

What Is HTML-Based Help?

Online help methods are moving toward an HTML-based standard. HTML-based help is based on using Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), rather than our customary Rich Text Format (RTF) standard.

Is HTML-based help the same as HTML? No. HTML is the tagging language used to produce Web pages. While HTML-based help has its basis in HTML and uses the same basic tags and constructs as HTML, HTML-based help moves beyond HTML and includes features such as contents files, indexes, and navigation buttons.

You probably will not want to use a standard HTML authoring tool to create HTML-based help. Standard HTML tools do not support some of our most beloved help features, such as popups, related topics, contents, and an index. (Future articles will focus on authoring tools.)

Two Flavors of HTML-Based Help

Let's add to the complexity. Both Microsoft and Netscape announced standards for HTML-based Help. And, of course, they're not the same. Microsoft announced HTML Help (note the name) and Netscape announced NetHelp.

There are also two major browsers: Microsoft distributes its Web browser, Internet Explorer, and Netscape produces its popular browser, Netscape Navigator. Some HTML features work fine in one browser, but not in the other. Oh, me nerves.

Microsoft's HTML Help

Microsoft developed HTML Help to let help authors use the new HTML functionality and maintain current features of Windows Help. HTML Help also supports the advanced features of ActiveX controls, which are like reusable building blocks of software. (Microsoft published the ActiveX specification and Microsoft's Internet Explorer supports ActiveX technology.)

Netscape's NetHelp

Netscape offers its NetHelp as a cross-platform solution for HTML-based help. This solution currently operates in many platforms, including Windows, Macintosh, OS/2, and UNIX. However, NetHelp does not include direct support for Help features, such as popups, contents, or indexes.

Coming to the rescue, some help authoring tools extend NetHelp's functionality by including Netscape plug-ins and Java applets that do let you create contents and indexes. Netscape has announced its plans for a successor to Navigator; the company claims that this successor will support many more help features.

Future of HTML

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

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