RoboHelp Office 9.1
Robert J. Boeri
Delivering knowledge about your company or products, whether
within your company or to clients or others, is increasingly
difficult. Product support and documentation must be available
24/7, on an ever-increasing variety of platforms and the Web,
but at ever-decreasing costs. Online HELP is usually the solution.
Keeping HELP-development costs under control requires a system
that can derive multiple HELP products from a single-source
HELP knowledge base. Add the need for full-text searching and
the ever-increasing appetite for multimedia, and you've got
your work cut out for you.
Now there's a tool tailor-made for the task. RoboHelp Office
9.1 provides an excellent solution. It goes beyond mere delivery
of Windows help by offering an easy development environment
for delivering knowledge bases for technical support, product
demos, product documentation, and even general employee information
on corporate intranets, extranets, Web sites, or local storage
devices. Developing knowledge bases with RoboHelp feels comfortable
from the start, like using a combination of Microsoft Word and
your favorite Web authoring system. The result is a familiar
book-topic metaphor, to a variety of proprietary or open platforms.
Add to these knowledge management challenges a need to enhance
your ecommerce Web site, and you'll find that eHelp Corporation
is building a surprisingly attractive vision for even more comprehensive
knowledge management (see this issue's companion Information
Insider column, p. 42-Ed.). RoboHelp, and the newly renamed
eHelp corporation, have come a long way from the initial Windows
HELP solution, their ancestor that debuted nearly a decade ago.
feature overview and system requirements
To test RoboHelp Office, I used a typical installation on both
Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 95 systems. The installation instructions
require a minimalist configuration: 486 processor, 16MB RAM
(24MB recommended), any Windows 32-bit operating system from
Windows 95 to Windows Millennium and Windows 2000, at least
110MB free disk space and an additional 64MB for optimal performance,
Internet Explorer 4 or later (for HTML Help), Microsoft HTML
Help (included and installed with RoboHelp HTML), and appropriate
sound hardware to take advantage of multimedia HTML help delivery.
Although Office ran a bit sluggishly at times on my vintage
Pentium 200, it always performed acceptably. My test focused
on WebHelp, eHelp's enhanced solution for delivering help via
There isn't enough space here to explain all the different
capabilities and constraints of each Help format, but there
are many. These range from reliance on Windows native features
like ActiveX controls (not surprisingly, JavaHelp, Oracle Help,
and even classic WinHelp do not support these), to the ability
to integrate multimedia (JavaHelp and Oracle Help do not), to
the ability to offer full-text searching (all do).
If you have existing materials in a variety of formats that
you want to use with your HELP system, RoboHelp Office provides
a powerful import function. Figure 1 shows options for importing
HTML files, existing MS Word documents, Map files (often developed
for classic Windows Help systems), or "What's This?"
Help project files, generally built for C and C++ applications.
What makes using RoboHelp Office easy for developing knowledge
bases is that it manages all those Help system idiosyncrasies
behind the scenes, letting you focus on delivering knowledge
via what it calls "topics" (similar to Web pages).
Delivering the final Help system is as simple as "save
RoboHelp Office's "Single Source" feature also lets
you create two classic Windows Help systems: WinHelp 3 (for
Win 3.1) or WinHelp 4 (for the 32-bit Windows family, from Windows
95 through NT 4.0) from the same source file. Single Source
also lets you use your compiled Help (HLP) file to create printable
documentation, WebHelp, and Microsoft HTML-based Help. Still,
there seems to be no easy way to get from one of the HTMLHelp
outputs to Classic WinHelp, although that is likely not to be
something often required.
A typical installation gets you both the core HELP development
system for HTMLHelp and RoboHelp (classic), plus a set of "must
have" RoboHelp Office tools, including debugging tools,
HELP decompilers, an AVI capture tool, multifile search and
replace, and other support utilities. A look at the summary
of features in this package shows this product is really a full-featured
knowledge management system.
Each of these help systems uses the familiar book-page metaphor
that most users now expect, including pop-ups, graphics, indexing,
full-text searching, and the ability to integrate graphics,
sound, and video.
After going through the various, excellent tutorials that come
with the product, I decided to try two things based on my belief
that Web-delivered knowledge is the key value that products
like this offer:
- Build a small, Web-delivered Help knowledge base
- Convert a legacy Windows HTML Help project to a Web-delivered
Moreover, since I believe enterprise uses of RoboHelp to do
this are already committed to one of the major web authoring
tools, I wanted to test RoboHelp Office's claim that it played
well with others. That is, I developed my help project with
Office but integrated and deployed it within my existing Web
site using DreamWeaver 4.0. I did encounter one glitch that
turned out not to be related to Windows and ZIP disks. When
transferring my WinHelp project from a ZIP disk to DreamWeaver,
the case of many of my WinHelp filenames changed randomly; this
is a no-no when deploying to UNIX-based servers, as I did. You're
best advised to develop on a hard drive (or at least "generate"
the project on a hard drive) only to avoid this problem.
After jumping this hurdle, I easily designed, developed, and
delivered to my Web site a help project that explains how to
interpret a report I update monthly on World Wide Web Consortium
standards. (To see this in action, go to http://world.std.com/~bboeri/TRC/TRC-XML.htm
and click on help.) The RoboHelp interface was intuitive; its
built-in HELP was (not surprisingly) first-rate. And I finished
my project in record time. The result was a nicely packaged
set of project files in a folder RoboHelp called WebHelp, containing
sheets and other files required for platform-independent delivery.
Could an experienced Web developer have created these files
without RoboHelp? Yes, but only with a great deal of difficulty,
and deploying to multiple HELP formats would be a serious challenge.
And even with that done, it's hard to see how you could duplicate
RoboHelp's other project management features.
My second test was to convert a legacy Windows HTML Help file
(.CHM) system to WebHELP. The bundled HTML Help Studio tool
easily extracted all the constituent HTML topics, graphics,
style sheets (.CSS), indexes (.HHK), tables of contents (.HHC),
browse sequences (.BRS), and glossaries (.GLO) with this tool.
Reassembling these as a WebHelp system was not a completely
automatic process, but being able to do this at all is quite
During my learning and testing of this package, I needed to
contact eHelp's customer service via email. In both cases, I
received prompt, useful responses within one business day.
RoboHelp's decision to let you work in your familiar Web authoring
environment was wise. It postpones the immediate need for a
couple of features that I hope and expect will be available
in future versions of RoboHelp Office. First, Office lacks direct
support for streaming media and currently supports only Microsoft's
AVI. AVI files quickly become too large for reasonable Web delivery
and do not stream. I'd like to see native support within Office
for the two major streaming formats, Real from RealNetworks
and Windows Media from Microsoft. In the same vein, Office's
support for HTML version 4 is excellent, but it is already time
to move up to XHTML-XML for the Web-the new W3C standard for
Web authors. Again, pick the right authoring tool (like HomeSite
bundled with DreamWeaver), and you can produce XHTML directly
or transform RoboHelp HTML files to that format increasingly
accepted on non-traditional platforms like Ebooks.
As the list of available platforms and browsers grows, RoboHelp
Office will have its work cut out for it to continue providing
HTML-based help that is correct and effective. Still, this is
definitely the best-of-show in its category, and, if any system
can continue to provide multiple outputs from a single source,
it is RoboHelp Office.