Re: Platform-independent online help

Subject: Re: Platform-independent online help
From: Chet Ensign <Chet_Ensign%LDS -at- NOTES -dot- WORLDCOM -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 29 Dec 1994 09:40:39 EDT

Kelly Thompson writes:

We are investigating various methods for creating platform-independent
online help and would appreciate any suggestions, comments, warnings, etc. We
have looked at various products, but we haven't found any that are capable of
running our help on SGI, Sun and HP workstations and on PCs under both DOS and

HTML has caught our attention, but we could use some insight into this method
as well. Have any of you created local online help using HTML? If so, did you
use any of the HTML editors and/or convertors out there? Most information I
have found on HTML has been related to use on the Internet, but it seems that
it could be used for local online help as well.


There is a product (I can't remember its name -- and I looked through my files,
too; still don't remember -- maybe somebody else knows it) that accepts the RTF
used to create Windows help files and compiles it into help files for
X-Windows. As I recall, their product works on all the UNIX boxes you listed,
and the company was very cooperative in working out acceptable licensing
arrangements for their software. That would take care of Windows and UNIX. I
don't know how you would pull in DOS.

HTML has a couple of problems. It is a simple markup language and lacks support
for some key text constructions that you would probably want to have in a help
system -- for example, the current incarnation doesn't have any markup for
tables. HTML is not the form that you'd want to use to store your information.
And I can tell you from experience that recoding existing documents into HTML
is costly and time consuming.

Also, there's the issue of the reader. HTML alone is just ASCII text; you need
a browser in order to display it in a readable form. Mosaic is the most widely
known and you have to make sure all your users have it installed and running on
their machines. That is not a trivial issue in the delivery of a help system,
because you can't sell it as part of your software.

But the model represented by HTML is the *right* one; a platform-neutral
information delivery language and help readers for each platform that can
present the proper parts of that information to a user on demand (e.g., when
the user presses "F1.")

A key question is how much your organization wants to invest in this effort.
Any cross-platform help reader is going to cost money to distribute. What sort
of parameters are you working in? I know of one possible solution, but it would
look pricey at first glance.

Best Regards,


Chet Ensign Phone: (908) 771-9221
Director, Electronic Publishing Email: chet -at- lds -dot- com
Logical Design Solutions, Inc. Email(home): censign -at- interserv -dot- com

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