Using the HTML Help System

Currently, the most common Help system used in Windows applications is HTML Help, which uses CHM files. This system has pretty much replaced the old Windows Help System (WinHelp), which used HLP files. Both of these Help systems enable the developer to associate a context ID with a particular help topic. This makes it possible to display a particular help topic in a context-sensitive manner.

In this section, I briefly describe the HTML help-authoring systems. Details on creating such Help systems are well beyond the scope of this book. However, you'll find lots of information and examples online.

If you plan to develop a large-scale Help system, I strongly recommend that you purchase a help-authoring software product to make your job easier. Help-authoring software makes it much easier to develop Help files because the software takes care of lots of the tedious details for you. Many products are available, including freeware, shareware, and commercial offerings. Perhaps the most popular help-authoring product is RoboHelp,from eHelp Corporation. RoboHelp creates both WinHelp and HTML Help Systems. For more information, visit the company's Web site at this address: www. ehelp.com.

Microsoft has designated HTML Help as the Windows standard for providing user help. This system essentially compiles a series of HTML files into a compact Help system. Additionally, you can create a combined table of contents and index as well as use keywords for advanced hyperlinking capability. HTML Help can also make use of additional tools such as graphics files, ActiveX controls, scripting, and DHTML (Dynamic HTML). Figure 24-8 shows an example of an HTML Help System.

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Figure 24-8: An example of HTML Help.

Figure 24-8: An example of HTML Help.

HTML Help is displayed by the HTML Help Viewer, which uses the layout engine of Internet Explorer. The information is displayed in a window, and the table of contents, index, and search tools are displayed in a separate pane. In addition, the help text can contain standard hyperlinks that display another topic or even a document on the Internet. Importantly, HTML Help can also access files stored on a Web site. This is ideal for directing users to a source of up-to-date information that might not have been available when the Help system was created.

You might have noticed that Office 2003 implements help differently than in previous versions. For some reason, the designers chose to use the task bar to display help topics,and the help is displayed in a separate window. So,accessing help in Office 2003 essentially requires two windows.To me, this is a giant step backward in terms of usability. Sometimes, Microsoft's decisions simply defy logic and common sense.

Like WinHelp, you need a special compiler to create an HTML Help System. The HTML Help Workshop, along with lots of additional information, is available free from from the Microsoft Web site at this address:

http://msdn.microsoft.com/library/tools/htmlhelp/chm/HH1Start.htm

To get a feel for how HTML files are created, display any topic in Excel's Help system. Then right-click the document and choose View Source. You'll be able to view the original HTML source document.

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