Help has arrived! I've have been using RoboHELP for about four years. I first bought it as a special at a Powersoft trade show in 1995. The price was right, it sounded like a cool product and I didn't know anything about creating help files. I create help files, mostly as technical help documents for the programs I write for my clients, and needed something that was easy to use. It looked like a good place to start. It was, it turned out, a good place to stay.
When I was presented with the opportunity to write this review, I was a bit overwhelmed. This is a very broad product with more features than I could write about in the space I have. Over the past four years the people at Blue Sky have made continuous improvements in this product. With WinHELP 2000 they continued this progression. With eHelp and other seamless Internet links they seem to be closing in on Ted Nelson's Xanadu.
The Quick Tour
RoboHELP Office 2000 is a multifaceted tool that helps you build not only classical Windows Help files for Win3.1, 95/98 and NT, but also HTML help, JavaHelp and Printed documentation. RoboHELP 2000 includes support for the new JavaHelp 1.0 and an interesting Web extension to help called eHelp.
RoboHELP Office 2000 now supports the creation of JavaHelp 1.0 files for use in your Java projects. Sun Microsystems recently released JavaHelp 1.0 as a platform-independent Help format for Java-based applications. As Sun evidently has no intention of releasing an authoring environment for creating this kind of help, RoboHELP provides an easy development path with the single-source process as long as you have the JavaHelp 1.0 and JDK 1.2.2. Once you've created your help project, you can easily generate the JavaHelp with all the Java-based Help features such as Table of Contents, full-text search, dynamic index, navigation controls, file compilation, HTML content, hyperlinks and Java components.
WebHelp provides a cross-platform solution for HTML-based help. It generates Help for Windows 2000, NT, Windows 98, 95 and 3.1, Macintosh and UNIX. It also provides a Java applet for browsers that don't support Dynamic HTML.
The merging of classic help and the Web arrives with eHelp. Until now, a company's offering had to consist of static help files. eHelp creates a seamless entrée into search engines and gives you the ability to set up chat rooms or FAQ areas for your users.
According to Blue Sky, "eHelp is a new Internet Help portal technology that Blue Sky is launching as part of RoboHELP Office 2000.
eHelp extends a standard Help system by combining many of the Internet user-assistance tools into a single Help portal that can be accessed from within a standard application Help system. eHelp includes advanced Web search capabilities, and can also host separate communities for each application that employs eHelp. Each community will include a continually growing Q&A knowledge base and discussion groups, and allow real-time chat with other users of the same product." Blue Sky will host the eHelp on its own set of servers as a free service to users of RoboHELP. Contact Blue Sky if you intend to use this feature.
Getting Started with RoboHELP
You can create a new help project using RoboHELP's new project wizard. This wizard helps you build basic standalone help projects, application help with settings preset for many of the standard application environments such as Visual C++, Access, PowerBuilder, Delphi and Visual Basic, to mention just a few. You can create help that presents itself in an Explorer pane and, if you have your own custom templates, custom help.
Once you've created the project, creating basic Windows help is easy. This is a very intuitive product. I actually have a manual somewhere, but I haven't opened it in a very long time. After you start up RoboHELP you have the RoboHELP Explorer on the left side of your screen and Word on the right (see Figure 1). To start, you create the outline for your help document as a series of books, and within them you create the topics you wish to write about (this is the CNT file). When you create a topic, RoboHELP adds the topic to the opened Word document and you then type the documentation. You can even generate a complete index automatically using the Smart Index Wizard (see Figure 2). When you finish, you click on the "compile" icon and poof! Help has arrived! While you can generate classic WinHelp output, you can also create a Help file that displays the TOC, index, etc. on the left side (see Figure 3) with the help of a DLL from Blue Sky.
RoboHELP really shines when it comes to the options available to you in the document itself. You can create hypertext links of amazing variety. First, you can create simple jumps to other topics within the same or other help documents. You can also add topics to a list of available "see also"s. Then, when you're creating another related topic, you can reference additional topics with a see-also button.
RoboHELP provides four types of buttons you can place within help topics. These four types authorable, mini, shortcut and graphical determine the appearance of the buttons in your topic. What you can do with these buttons is quite extensive. You can define the display popups and jump to other topics within the same document, other documents or HTML pages. You can also provide a number of programmatic actions with the Macro button type. This button type lets you define menu items, keyboard shortcuts, execute programs, display video, play sounds and many other actions
Sometimes a picture, especially a moving one, is worth a thousand words. RoboHELP comes with a "Software Video Camera" with which you can capture both audio and video software demonstrations that you can include in your help files. You start your application and the "camera" as you point and click and type. The camera captures your actions and voice in an AVI file. You can then include this file in your help file for demonstrations.
This feature combines database access to a knowledge base through your help files. PC HelpDesk packages your product knowledge base into a customized HelpDesk that users can access through a link from the help file.
One of the most powerful things RoboHELP provides is single-source output for help files. From one help project you can create output for a number of target platforms. One of my clients asked me if I could provide HTML help for the document I was writing. This is one of those requests that's easy to do with RoboHELP and makes you look good! Once you've created the help project and done your documentation, you can create:
- Help for Win 3.1
- Help for Win 95 and NT
- Microsoft HTML help (Win 98)
- JavaHelp 1.0
- Windows CE Help
- Netscape NetHelp 1
- Netscape NetHelp 2
- Printed Documentation
The Real Power
With RoboHELP Office 2000, the power of an integrated world really becomes a possibility. With this new version you can integrate HTML into your help document. This means you can display HTML documents in your help file without exiting to a browser. You can jump from HTML to a normal topic, and you can jump to a Web page from your document.
About The Author
Bernhard Metzger is a Powerbuilder CPD Professional and president of KEV Systems, Inc.,
a consulting company in Newton, Massachusetts. Bernie can be reached at
[email protected], or by voice
at 800 376-5755.