Cross-platform (web enabled) Help Systems?

Subject: Cross-platform (web enabled) Help Systems?
From: keith_arnett -at- RESTON -dot- OMD -dot- STERLING -dot- COM
Date: Mon, 20 Apr 1998 13:51:39 -0500

Wondering if anyone else out there is experiencing the Cross System
Help Platform blues?

Our software lab develops products for the open systems market; target
platforms to date are HP-UX, AIX, Solaris, Open VMS and Windows NT.

We source our docs in FrameMaker, and I have been researching a means
to most easily distribute online help on a cross-platform basis.

The favored solution was to purchase the Omni Systems MIF to RTF
filter, and then compile and distribute WinHelp files for NT, and
Bristol HyperHelp for the UNIX platforms.

Naturally, this was too easy, and late last week it was revealed that
in the next release, our applications will be "web enabled." What
this means is that a remote user must be able to access and operate
our application from his/her PC using a standard web browser.

This is to be done via a third-party web server application running on
the local system with our application. The fly in this ointment is
that the local help systems, be they WinHelp or HyperHelp, are *not*
web enabled, and thus are is not available to the remote user. Not a
good scenario.

Thus far, I have looked at Jelp and JHelp, but both of these products
are barely out of the cradle and not particularly inspiring at this
point. Jelp, seemingly the more developed of the two, requires RTF
files for compiling (an added production step).

The most attractive solution to date seems to be to bundle Netscape
Navigator/NetHelp with our application, and generate HTML files
directly from FrameMaker using Webworks Publisher. A major
consideration is that Navigator/NetHelp is free, freely distributable,
well supported, and runs on all of our target platforms (plus a few
others). In addition, NetHelp seems to use fairly standard HTML
files, and Netscape provides you with ways to customize the browser
interface to your application (including setting up a pre-configured
bookmarks list).

The downside of this is distributing a "help viewer" application that
is 8-10 MB in size. There are also potential system conflicts if a
customer installs "our" Navigator in conjunction with an existing
version on his/her system.

Is anyone else out there grappling with this issue, and if so, have
you come up with any solutions?

Comments welcome!


Keith Arnett
Technical Writer
Sterling Software, Inc./Operations Management Division
Reston VA USA

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