HTMLhelp vs. WinHelp (was Do users really like the format of HTML Help/Webhelp?)

Subject: HTMLhelp vs. WinHelp (was Do users really like the format of HTML Help/Webhelp?)
From: "Wing, Michael J" <mjwing -at- INGR -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 14 Jul 1999 10:40:14 -0500

> > you stick to a standardly formatted help system (such as HTML Help or
> > Webhelp), your users will benefit more than they would if you added
> bells
> > and whistles--at least in this era of help systems.
> [Bill says:] Sure. Why introduce something new when what's out
> there works? Of course there are times and situations that warrant a new
> approach to an old medium. But once you really think about the purpose of
> Help you begin to realize that new bells and whistles ar nothing more than
> noisemakers. Information is key; anything else, unless integrated with the
> information in a smart way, is fluff.
> Bill Swallow
Some bells and whistles are fluff. For example, an animated GIF with
dancing dogs or a WAV file that plays everytime you enter a topic are
obnoxious. However, there is so much more that HTML help opens the door to
(as compared with WinHelp). For example:

>> You can make a living manual in which examples, updates, late-breaking
news, white papers, product information pages, sales-order forms reside on
your company's web. You can then integrate the links seamlessly into the
HTMLHelp. The user accesses these documents from the help's TOC and the
pages appear in the help (no spawning of an external viewer - a.k.a WinHelp)

>> The user can download updates straight through the help interface.

>> If your application has an automation layer or if the application is
web-based, the application can be run through controls in the HTML help.
Great for programmer's guides, API documentation, and tutorials.

>> If you are documenting server software, you can execute Active Server
Pages "in place" within HTMLhelp. If you really want to get creative you
can put the manual on your company's server and link to ASPs through HTML
help. When the user connects to the "living manual", you could have them
enter their id code. The ASP pages (on your company's server) could then
display a version of the manual that matches their purchased options,
version, user-administrator info, and so forth. They could then select to
download the latest manual. When updates are made, they can reconnect and
re-download. This provides an always-current manual.

Warning -- A bit of evangelizing follows:

It is my opinion that web-based applications are the future of application
development. That is, applications will be built server-side and run
through browsers. Connect to one site and your browser becomes a EMT
dispatch application. Connect to another site and your browser becomes an
electronic circuit analysis application. Connect to a third site and your
browser becomes a land surveying analysis tool.

This technology will also start to push desktop applications to the side.
Why distribute and load a new desktop application to each user (and
redistribute and load for each upgrade) when all they require is a browser?
With the application built server-side, upgrades exist the next time that
the user hits the site.

What has this got to do with Technical Writing and HTMLhelp? Well,
everything. HTMLhelp uses browser technology. This technology provides the
interface in which the a web-based application is executed. Therefore, you
can integrate your documentation with the application. For example, you can
list instructions for performing a process and then have the user execute
the process within the help. Through scripting, you can have the help
automatically select and highlight the sequence of selections and even
verify if the user has performed the correct steps.

Anyway, with applications becoming web-centric and documents becoming
web-centric, developer and writers will be working in the same medium. This
ought to close much of the technology gap that is perceived between a
Developer's and a Writer's skills. It's a good time to learn DHTML,
Scripting, ASP, and Java. You can employ all these skills in HTMLhelp.


Michael Wing (mailto:mjwing -at- ingr -dot- com)
Staff Writer/ Web Applications Developer
Intergraph Corporation; Huntsville, Alabama

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