Saturday, August 11, 2007

What’s Up with RoboHelp?

RoboHelp has had some rough times in the last few years. By early 2006, many people, myself included, assumed it was dead and were surprised when Adobe announced otherwise and then released version 6.

When RoboHelp 6 appeared, it met with near-explosive disdain in many quarters because the changes seemed so minor compared to people’s expectations and hopes. I got many questions about it because my involvement with the tool is well-known, and my answer was that I thought 6 was more of a public relations release than a “real” release – Adobe’s way of saying that RoboHelp wasn’t dead and that authors should hang on a bit longer. If I was right, RoboHelp 7 would be the test. Would Adobe have used the breathing room provided by version 6 to make significant changes to 7?

RoboHelp 7 isn’t out yet, but Adobe gave several sneak peeks at the STC annual conference in May. Based on those sneak peeks, I think my assessment was right. The changes promised for version 7 represent a major upgrade. Here are what I view as the high points from the sneak peeks:

No more kadovs – Kadov long ago became legendary as a sign of RoboHelp’s lack of code cleanliness. In fact, its importance depended more on what you were creating. If you were creating projects that would have to be converted or processed somehow, or were dealing with very standards-driven IT groups, the kadovs were a problem. However, if you were creating projects as end products with no post-processing or conversion in mind, the kadovs were a minor issue. As long as the project displayed correctly, the kadovs were inelegant but not critical. Adobe appears to have gotten rid of the kadovs in RoboHelp 7, finally settling the issue. A strong improvement at the code level.

MDI (Multiple Document Interface) support – RoboHelp always displayed one topic at a time in WYSIWYG. If you wanted to compare two topics or cut and paste material between them, you had to open and re-open the two topics but couldn’t have them open together. The MDI support lets you do that. I’ve never thought MDI support was all that significant but many authors disagree with me, so we’ll call it a strong improvement at the authoring level.

Snippets – RoboHelp 6 added variables, making it a lot easier to tailor projects – to different clients, for example. However, variables are text-only and can’t be formatted. Snippets should let you create re-usable chunks of content that you can insert throughout a project and update like variables, but also format. A nice touch will be the ability to insert variables into snippets. A strong improvement at the authoring level.

Unicode and double-byte support – This will make it easier to create outputs for non-Romance languages like Hebrew or Cyrillic and Asian languages in general. A strong improvement at the authoring level if you need to translate or localize, largely academic otherwise.

Vista/Office ‘07 support – I think Vista and Office ‘07 will spread into the office world slowly since their processor and memory needs will often require buying new hardware. Many older PCs just won’t have the horsepower to be upgraded to Vista. However, the lack of support for Vista and Office ‘07 in RoboHelp 6 had to be a bit embarrassing for Adobe. An improvement at the technical level.

Multiple ToC support – This will let you create complex single source outputs without having to swap multiple ToC files in and out of projects through Windows Explorer. A strong improvement at the authoring level.

Interface customization – RoboHelp always supported limited customization of the interface by letting you show or hide the toolbars, and move toolbars around, but that was it. The sneak peek promises more toolbar customization features, plus function “pods” that can be moved around or hidden as needed. You can also save a specific configuration of toolbars and pods for recall, like the memory button in a car seat. An improvement at the authoring convenience level.

The sneak peek did not list several things, such as information about the version control system, support for Web 2.0 features, and my pet issue…

Native XML support – I don’t know if this means RoboHelp 7 will stay as HTML and use the minimal XML support from versions X5 and 6, or whether Adobe is working on XML support and simply didn’t list it in the sneak peek. Adobe and I have disagreed about the need for XML support in the past. If they’re not going to offer more XML support in RoboHelp 7, I have to assume that Adobe’s market research showed that it’s not that important to current authors in major clients. The question is how that might affect support for XML-based formats like DITA. Perhaps in RoboHelp 8…

In summary, assuming that the features discussed in the sneak peek show up in the release version of RoboHelp 7, I rate it a big improvement over version 6 and a further reassurance to current RoboHelp users that the tool is very much alive.