Periodically, questions come to Microsoft via a variety of avenues regarding our current guidance on Help systems and formats. And they usually end up in the Help Guy’s inbox. :)
WinHelp (.HLP files) and HTML Help (.CHM files):
If you are developing a general Windows application today, it is our recommendation that you use HTML Help, and not WinHelp. The information on the following pages is still generally applicable: Application Compatibility: Help Engine Support and Which Version of Help Do I Need?
If you haven’t already, moving from HLP to CHM would be a good decision at this time. Your biggest hurdle in moving from HLP to CHM is the migration of your content from RTF to HTML. The HTML Help Workshop has some rudimentary tools to help you in migrating your projects over to HTML and CHM. You will likely need to do some additional work to get your content to look a bit more polished than what the conversion tool will produce.
If it’s within your budget, you may wish to consider adopting a formal Help Authoring Tool (HAT). Most of the better known HATs will allow you to import an HLP project and output an HTML Help/CHM file. A good place to compare options is the HAT Matrix maintained by one of our Help MVPs, Char James-Tanny.
HTML Help ships as part of the Windows OS.
Customers on Vista and Windows 7 can download the WinHelp viewer (for.HLP files) from our download site.
Assistance Platform 1.0 (.H1S files):
The Assistance Platform format is only used by the Windows operating system and OEMs for OS customization. The documentation and tools for compiling this format are part of the Windows Automated Installation Kit (AIK) available for download. The Assistance Platform Client (helppane.exe) and its format are not available for general 3rd party use or redistribution.
For further general information, see Assistance Platform 1.0 Client SDK on the MSDN Library site.
Microsoft Help 2.x (.HxS files):
If you are a Visual Studio Industry Partner (VSIP) or shipping a product that extends earlier versions of Visual Studio (2002 – 2008), you need to develop content that works with Microsoft Help 2.x. Microsoft Help 2.x ships with Visual Studio 2002 – 2008. The Microsoft Help 2.x runtime, Document Explorer (dexplore.exe) and its format are not available for general 3rd party use or redistribution.
For information about Microsoft Help 2.x, the .hxs file format and integrating Help with Visual Studio 2002 – 2008, please visit the Visual Studio 2008 Help Authoring and Integration page.
Help Viewer 1.0 (.MSHC files):
If you develop a product that integrates with Visual Studio 2010, or re-uses the Visual Studio 2010 IDE as part of your own product then you are able to take advantage of Help Viewer 1.0. The Help Viewer 1.0 runtime is not available for general 3rd party or redistribution. The file format and attribution is non-proprietary.
For more information about Help Viewer 1.0 with links to an SDK documenting the MSHC file format and integrating Help with Visual Studio 2010, please visit the Visual Studio 2010 Getting Started with Help Content and Integration page.
I’m excited to announce that we have just posted a preview video of Help Viewer 1.1, which will be shipping with Visual Studio 2010 SP1.
We have been hard at work over the last several months since Visual Studio 2010 was released. Over the beta period prior to release and since the release, we have had a significant amount of feedback driving for a more familiar Help experience to what we shipped in previous versions of Visual Studio. To that end, we have been developing an offline client help viewer - similar in some respects to Document Explorer (Dexplore.exe) that shipped with previous versions of Visual Studio.
Jeff Braaten, Director of Program Management for the Library Experience team which owns the Visual Studio Help Experience, has posted 3 blog posts today that both tell the story of how we got to where we are today and highlight some of the changes that you should expect to see in SP1. You can read the whole story, or go directly to the SP1 specific post.
The video we posted is me giving a brief demo of an early build of the new Help Viewer for Visual Studio 2010 SP1. A slightly more Channel 9 friendly version of the video is also available.
We expect this should be a net gain for partners, with no new work required for them nor their customers to take advantage of the update beyond installing SP1.
Q: Do we need to do anything differently with our content than we did for Visual Studio 2010 RTM to get it to display in the new viewer?
No. The general requirements for integrating your help content with Visual Studio 2010 have not changed. Please see our Getting Started with Help Content and Integration for Visual Studio 2010 if you are new to these requirements.
Q: Are we able to customize how our content is branded in the new viewer?
Yes. The new viewer still supports the content branding features that are documented in the Help Viewer 1.0 SDK.
Q. Are we able customize how the new viewer itself is branded (“skinning”).
No. Our focus for SP1 was to ensure that customer productivity was restored in a number of key areas, as described in the video and Jeff Braaten’s blog posts.
Q. How will our content appear in the Table of Contents in the new viewer?
One of the things we heard most about from partners was the diminished discoverability of their content with Visual Studio 2010 RTM release. With the new viewer, we have restored the familiar treeview type of experience with the Table of Contents (TOC) so that no matter how you enter the TOC, 3rd party content will always be visible and accessible as in earlier versions of Visual Studio.
Q. What if the user’s default setting is to go Online?
The behavior is essentially the same as it was at VS 2010 RTM.
If the user’s default is set to Online, then a browser is launched to MSDN Online and 3rd party content is not visible, because it is not hosted or otherwise available via MSDN Online.
If a user issues an F1 help request, and 3rd party content is installed locally, we will open the local help for that content request for 3rd party partner content as we did at VS 2010 RTM.
If you have additional questions – feel free to post them and I will add responses to the list here.
We would very much welcome your feedback. Feel free to drop me a line here via the blog, leave comments on either my or Jeff’s blog, or send mail to our Help Feedback alias – email@example.com).
We look forward to hearing from you!