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HTML Help: What Does It All Mean?

A recent discussion about the distribution of HTML Help on the WINHLP-L list has demonstrated that people are both upset and confused about the requirements to both run and distribute the HTML Help environment from Microsoft. Statements such as "I totally freaked because I thought it would seriously impact our upcoming conversion efforts" and "I am on the verge of becoming a rabble-rouser out of frustration," are symptomatic of the range of feelings surrounding the ongoing story of Microsoft's conversion of help to HTML.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact there are two ways to run HTML Help, using either Java or Active X. While the Java applet is browser independent, it only offers a limited subset of HTML Help functionality. Ralph Walden, the lead developer of HTML Help, made it clear in a September 16th post to the WINHLP-L list that there are no plans to extend the Java applet. The charter of the Active X version, however, is to continue to grow both in its own capabilities and in its use of all of the functionality of the advancing Internet Explorer (IE) environment.

Distribution Problems
The problem with the Active X control for most help authors is that if you want all of its functionality you must distribute IE along with your application or online information or else IE must be installed on the target system. Early adopters have been largely negative about this requirement. This is usually due to one of two reasons: the massive increase in the installation requirements when including IE and Microsoft's failure to create an easy channel for distributing IE even if someone wants to do so.

People are complaining that Microsoft has led them down a primrose path of expectations and then left them out in the cold. This is not true. Although Microsoft has not really made strong efforts to map out the proceedings, the path has always been clear to those who were listening.

The Paradigm Shifts
Ralph Walden’s spectacular announcement at WinWriters' 96 WinHelp conference included a statement that has held true all the way through this process. Ralph started his presentation by saying the next version of Windows would not use RTF-based help but would instead use HTML-based help. That means that what we are now calling Windows 98, which has slipped to June of next year, always planned to use HTML Help as the help engine. This has been borne out in Beta 2 of the operating system. HTML Help is indeed the help engine. Since HTML Help was really targeted at Windows 98 and now NT 5.0, which will include the browser and the HTML Help controls as part of the OS interface, distribution of IE will be a moot point, except for use in legacy Windows 95 and NT 4.0 environments.

Enter the Referee
This is where the consent decree from the Department of Justice comes into play. Microsoft has been arguing with the OEM distributors of Windows 95 and NT 4.0 that IE must be part of the installation, since it is an integral part of the operating system. One could ask what the basis of this argument is because nowhere is it obvious why IE should be considered an integral part of Windows 95 or NT 4.0--until one considers the requirements of the HTML Help system. Since full functionality of HTML Help requires IE, the browser is needed by both operating systems to run help for programs that use what could be legitimately called the Windows 98 Help System.

With that as background I don't see any incentive for Microsoft to separate the rendering elements from IE to independently support HTML Help. I see exactly the opposite. Breaking out the rendering elements and allowing separate distribution would weaken their position that the browser is an integral part of the OS.

Where Does This Leave Us?
While this may upset some of the help authoring community and give other vendors a chance to fill in the Java-based holes, I predict that HTML Help will be THE environment two years from now. I see all the other solutions going the way of previous hypertext systems such as HyperWriter, Folio, Dynabook, and the other earlier hypertext solutions. They will be left to fill narrow niches or become outright orphans.

I know that isn't what many people want to hear, but I believe it is the reality of the situation. It appears that we, as help and online information authors, are cursed, as the Chinese are wont to say, with living in interesting times.


Friar Tuck copyright 1994 Sageline Publishing Artist Martin Eppard All rights reserved

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