Help State of the Union (October 2010)

Help State of the Union (October 2010)

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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. :)

What is Microsoft’s guidance regarding:

  • WinHelp (.HLP files)
  • HTML Help (.CHM files)
  • Assistance Platform 1.x (.H1S files)
  • Microsoft Help 2.x (.HxS files)
  • Help Viewer 1.0 (.MSHC files)

 

Here is an high level summary of our position on the help formats listed above (see below for further discussion):

  1. If you are developing a general Windows application today, it is our recommendation that you use HTML Help (.CHM files), and not WinHelp (.HLP files).
    • HTML Help ships as part of the Windows OS.
    • WinHelp viewers compatible with Windows Vista and Windows 7 are available for download.
  2. If you are an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and need to produce documentation to integrate with Windows Help and Support for Windows Vista or Windows 7, you need to develop content that works with Assistance Platform 1.0 (.H1S files).
  3. If you are a Visual Studio Industry Partner or shipping a product that extends Visual Studio 2010, you need to develop content that works with Help Viewer 1.0 (.MSHC files). Help Viewer 1.0 ships with Visual Studio 2010.
  4. If you are a Visual Studio Industry Partner 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 (.HxS files). Microsoft Help 2.x ships with Visual Studio 2002 – 2008.
  5. Assistance Platform 1.0, Microsoft Help 2.x and Help Viewer 1.0 are not available for general 3rd party use or redistribution.

 


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.

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  • I can't wait until Microsoft unifies all its current help formats into one with the non-opaque and secure format of "Help Viewer 1.0" and a kick-ass native help viewer program that's available in three skews: one for Windows Help and Support (question-oriented with minimal UI), one for everyday applications (good TOC, combined keyword index and full-text search) and one for programmability-related scenarios like API documentation and Visual Studio help (like Visual Studio 2008's Document Explorer only stripped down and with a good API available).

    You're probably not working on this. I know what I know about the beleaguered status of help and documentation at Microsoft, so I think I can say that you aren't working on it. But why not? Seriously.

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Jesper - there are lots of suns, moons and stars to align for that to happen... It's certainly my personal goal and I know the industry certainly desires it as well.

    We have a fair amount of interest in Help Viewer 1.0 across the company, so we can all only hope and pray. :)

    P.

  • Great Summary! :)

  • I would love to see Help Viewer 1.0 make it into the hands of third parties. It would be a welcomed replacement for CHM files.

  • It's clear that the browser as help viewer is not sufficient. Leaving content developers to roll their own viewer is also not optimal.

    I've heard of a stand-alone MS Help Viewer to be released with VS2010 SP1. Any truth to that?  

  • Hi Andrew - check out today's blog post! Hope that answers your question! :)

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