Before Tim Berners-Lee covered the world in his Web, we were experiencing HTML-style benefits—and we didn’t even know it. Maybe one of the reasons we PC veterans jumped into the Internet’s World Wide Web so readily was that we were already accustomed to hyperlinking—in Windows help files.

But even though HTML and help files act somewhat similarly, they are created differently. Few would try to turn HTML into help, but software tools enable you to turn help files into HTML—or into printed docs. In fact, it’s never been easier to document your software projects or publish how-to manuals.

Lots of help
RoboHELP Office 2000, from Blue Sky Software, is one of the oldest names in help-authoring programs. Besides clickable help, the program can generate files for printed documents.

Blue Sky also supports Microsoft’s HTML Help, the new help format in Windows 98. Interested users can download a 15-day limited version of RoboHELP for Microsoft HTML Help to test it.

Other Blue Sky help products include JavaHelp and WebHelp (to create cross-platform help files for Windows, Mac, and UNIX). And just in case you think it would be a good idea to create HTML help files using a standard HTML editor, Blue Sky offers a link to the “top reasons why you cannot.”

Samples of all the various kinds of help files that Blue Sky products can generate are available to download. I was particularly interested in the WebHelp sample page, which features a demo help system describing how to use a fictional product called WidgetSoft’s Digital Studio to create a complete, feature-length film in “a few mouse clicks.” Clicking around the demo is good for a laugh, but it also shows the power and ease of WebHelp’s clean interface of tabs and tree-style navigation.

WexTech , another respected name in Windows documentation, is now shipping Doc-To-Help 2000 in Standard and Professional versions. Doc-To-Help allows users to create online and printed documentation from within the same authoring system. It integrates itself into Microsoft Word to accomplish this. A free trial version is available.

ForeFront’s ForeHelp Premier 2000 , a WYSIWYG stand-alone program, also helps users create help files. With the add-in ForeHTML Pro, it turns help files into HTML. A demo version of ForeHelp, which limits users in the number of topics they can build, is available for download .

Need a pro?
Are you looking for someone else to write the documentation for your software or service? Technical Standards, Inc. , is one of many agencies that can supply you with hired scribes: writers, editors, formatters, translators, indexers, illustrators, and graphic artists. TSI says it can deploy these specialists “at our office or yours.” Devotees of technical writing might be interested in Writer’s Ink, a quarterly newsletter available from the site.

Another source for contract help in creating training manuals, interactive CD-ROMs, Windows help, and HTML help is Techsplain .

Wanna be a pro?
Becoming a top-flight documentation producer for large corporations often means immersing yourself in guidance and conformance standards, such as those contained in ISO/QS 9000. If it’s all alphabet soup to you, as it is to me, check out the page All About ISO/QS 9000 for definitions and FAQ files.

The ISO 9000 Support Group offers training materials and links to other sites on the topic.

Shareware helps

  • Want to automatically generate documentation for SQL, C++, or PowerBuilder projects? The MKHelp series from MKTools creates HTML, RTF, or text (for printing) docs. MKTools’ Template Program Language (TPL) scripts allow users to standardize output across projects. Titles in the series cost $750, though the C++ and SQL flavors are available for download and evaluation in Windows 95/NT format.
  • Help Scribble, from Jan Goyvaerts of JGsoft , allows users to create Windows help files. It has built-in editors for hotspot bitmap images and WinHelp macros. And the latest version supports export to the HTML Help format. Goyvaerts says the program also offers extra features for Delphi and C++ Builder programmers. The price is $79, but a trial version is available for download. A help compiler is required, and a link is provided to a compiler you can download if you don’t have one already.
  • I must add that Goyvaerts also made my favorite text editor, EditPad, which leaves Notepad in the dust. EditPad can open very LARGE files, offers a tabbed multi-document interface, searches/replaces across all documents, and lets users assign their own foreground/background colors as well as screen font. EditPad is almost free. It’s postcardware: Mr. Goyvaerts would like to receive a postcard as payment.

Lauren Willoughby is a Web editor at The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, KY, where she also writes the weekly “Technophobe” column. At night she turns into an online auction junkie. When she’s not spotting deals on refurbished 486s, she’s reading a science fiction novel.

Have you worked with one or more help-authoring programs? Tell us what you liked and didn’t like about them by posting a comment below. If you have a story idea you’d like to share, please drop us a note .