How to Save Help

We are frequently asked by our customers what the next big thing regarding online help under Microsoft Windows will be, respectively which solutions and help platforms currently exist.

Slightly embarrassed one has to refer those interested to the veteran among online help tools, the html help. Though introduced more than 12 years ago by Microsoft, html help unfortunately still is the current official help platform on Windows operating systems.

HTML Help is clearly showing its age. The user interface is relatively outmoded, stuck with the state of the art of the early nineties, i.e. no unicode support, no filtering functions, very restricted integration of multimedia data etc. There are alternatives like e.g. the Eclipse Help or web-based help tools which all have their advantages and disadvantages.

Another alternative is to implement one’s own help application e.g. based on Adobe AIR. In the past we have supported some of our customers with implementing their own help applications or consulted them in the implementation process. Choosing this solution all requirements to the help can be covered perfectly.

One could be led to think that by introducing html help Microsoft has stopped any further or new development of help platforms and instead pulled out all developers for the development of controversial Clippy and chums. But far from it. Its own Office and Visual Studio products clandestinely received a completely new help platform with almost every version, Microsoft Help Viewer 2.0 with the release of Visual Studio 2012 being the latest.

Technically the Microsoft Help Viewer 2.0 provides everything a modern help platform needs:

  • state of the art user interface
  • content based completely on HTML5
  • larger help items can be designed modularly via packages
  • help packages resp. content can be installed offline while remaining available online as well
  • updated content can be provided online and automatically replaces an outdated offline version
  • filtering options

This list can certainly be added to, however, the Microsoft Help Viewer has one grave disadvantage. The display component – Help Viewer – is momentarily only included in the Microsoft Visual Studio 2012 – and in the next Office version – and unfortunately not available to the general public. One can only hope that Microsoft will reconsider its strategy here.

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