RoboHELP 2.0. (application development software for creating Windows Help files) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Clifton Karnes
With RoboHELP 2.0, creating Windows Help files is a snap.
Last issue, I talked about how to get the most from Windows Help from a user's point of view. This month, I'm going to talk about creating your own Help files.
Theoretically, the only tools you need to create a Windows Help file are the Help compiler (HC30.EXE or HC31.EXE) and a text editor that can produce ASCII text files, which the Help compiler reads and compiles. The Help compiler comes with most development systems, including the Windows SDK, Visual C++, and Borland C++. You also get the Help compiler with most Help-authoring tools.
Although you can create Help source files with an ASCII text editor, the Help compiler's native format is RTF (Rich Text Format), which is a little frightening to work with in its raw form. It's much easier to create Help source files with a word processor that can export RTF. Word for Windows has excellent RTF support (Microsoft invented RTF), and it has become the standard for Help authors.
Information on creating Help is sparse, but one excellent source is the Microsoft Help Authoring Guide, a Help file itself that explains Help file creation. It's available on the Windows SDK forum on CompuServe and on the Microsoft Developers Network CD. I haven't mentioned the MSDN CD before, but it's an indispensable tool for all Windows developers and professionals. It's a quarterly CD-ROM that boasts the entire hypertext documentation of the SDK, Visual C++, Petzold's Windows 3.1, and scores of other references. It also has lots of programs and useful information, including the Help Authoring Guide and other Help-authoring aids.
Back to creating Help. Using a word processor like Word for Windows instead of a text editor makes creating Help files easier, but it's still hard work. You have to put in the codes for topics, jumps, and graphics all by hand. And after you've saved your file, you have to compile it with the Help compiler, which, amazingly, is DOS based.
After you've gotten your feet wet with creating a few simple Help files, you'll begin to realize that this should be easier than it is.
Coming to the rescue is Blue Sky Software with Robo-HELP 2.0 (619-459-6365, $495). This program is a superb tool that turns Word for Windows into a Windows-based integrated development environment for Help, much the way Visual C++ and Visual Basic are integrated development environments for programs.
Everything that has to do with Help file creation and maintenance is automated with RoboHELP. The program installs a floating toolbox in Word and adds several items to Word's menus. To build a topic, you simply click on the Topic button. The program prompts you for titles and keywords. Creating a jump is just as easy. You click on the Jump button, and RoboHELP asks you where you want to jump. Creating pop-ups is a snap, too.
RoboHELP also has excellent support for embedded graphics, so managing BMP and MRB files is easy. In fact, you can do just about everything you'll ever need to do with a Help project from RoboHELP without ever having to write a line of code. If you're familiar with creating Help files, you'll know all about the Help project file, which has an HPJ extension. With RoboHELP, you'll probably never have to edit this file by hand.
One area in which RoboHELP really shines is Help macros. As you may know, the Help engine provides a set of macros that you can use yourself. (These macros should really be called functions. The macro name probably comes from the fact that Windows Help was developed by the Excel group.) These macros do things like print the current topic, set bookmarks, and the like. When you tell RoboHELP you want to embed a macro, it automatically supplies a list of all the available macros. You simply click on one, and RoboHELP puts the code in your Help document.
When it's time to compile, you just click on the Compile button. RoboHELP runs the DOS-based compiler engine in the background, gathers any error messages, and displays them in a window for you. You never have to see a DOS screen. In fact, unless you knew otherwise, you'd probably never guess that the Help compiler is a DOS program.
When you compile, if you find errors, RoboHELP will display the error messages and offer you a short explanation of what each error message means. If you've tried to decipher Help compiler error messages before, you know what a boon this is.
After you've successfully compiled your program, you can run it from Word by clicking on another button on RoboHELP's toolbox. If you're getting the impression that this program is wonderful, you're right. Creating Help just doesn't get any easier.