Friday, January 28, 2022

Review of MadCap Flare 2021 r3 and MadCap Central

MadCap just released new versions of Flare (2021 r3) and Central. In this post, I’ll take a brief look at the new features and speculate a bit as to where these tools are going.

The big new feature is the enhanced branching in Flare and Central. If you’re new to branching, imagine that you’re documenting version 2 of a product but you’ve been asked to document new feature X that will be included in a forthcoming version 3. A common way to do this is to copy the version 2 project, rename it version 3, and document new feature X in the version 3 documentation. Easy…

But what if engineering warns you that new feature X might not be completed in time for release of the version 3 documentation so you have to be prepared to remove that section. You can simply copy the version 3 project and name it “version 3 without new feature X”. You now have three Flare projects – version 2, version 3 with new feature X, and version 3 without new feature X.

To make things worse, what if you need to document new feature Y and add it in the two new versions? In this case, you might wind up with two more Flare projects - version 3 with new features X and Y, and version 3 without new feature X but new feature Y. Then you make some changes in version 3 without new feature X but with new feature y, then realize that you need to get these changes into version 3 with new feature X and new feature Y.

If your head is spinning at this point, that’s normal.

Authors often deal with situations like this, handling them using conditions. But conditions can quickly get complicated.  Branching can help. You can create separate versions of the documentation containing the different content, then merge the different content as needed. This can still be complicated but less so than trying to figure out the logic behind conditions that have often not been documented carefully.

For a good description of how branching works, see the Flare 2021 r3 webinar that MadCap first gave on January 26. Find it at https://www.madcapsoftware.com/webinars/new-releases-of-madcap-flare-2021-r3-madcap-central-a-walkthrough-of-whats-new-2

This webinar reviews branching enhancements in Flare and Central, plus using Central to perform topic reviews and builds and site creation, and enhancements to the topic filtering feature in Central. The description of branching starts at 2:31 in the webinar and ends at 12:52. It’s very well done and should get you up to speed on the concepts.

Some Thoughts on the New Features

From what I’ve seen of the software, MadCap has done a neat job of adding the branching features to Flare and Central and integrating the features across both. So, you can now do all your authoring and builds in Flare and simply use Central as a source control system, or do your authoring in Flare but build and control your source material in Central, or various combinations of both. It’s extremely flexible.

However, that flexibility means it can be easy to get confused over what tasks you’re doing in what tool. Because of that, I’d strongly recommend that any authors who use the new branching features write detailed cheat sheets that describe the process step by step.

There’s a bigger picture here as well. (What follows is my assessment of where MadCap is going. It’s not based on any information from MadCap.)

From the first, Flare has been both a tool and an environment to which MadCap attached new tools. For example, project analysis was originally done using the separate Analyzer tool until MadCap integrated Analyzer’s functionality into Flare via the Analysis feature. Generating analytics required using Google Analytics until MadCap added the analytics feature to Central. If you needed version control, you had to use third-party tools like Microsoft TFS, Git, or Subversion until MadCap added Central. Enhancement of the branching support in Central and Flare means that you can now do more and more tasks in the MadCap environment rather than having to mentally and procedurally integrate multiple tools from multiple vendors. In other words, MadCap is turning into a Swiss-Army knife vendor. What’s missing so far is large-scale governance features but the foundation is starting to appear.

I can see several effects from this.

  •      Flare will become competitive with larger, more expensive commercial content management systems.
  • ·    Flare will become competitive with expensive and custom content management and authoring systems offered by consulting companies. (To illustrate this, a few years ago I spent two weeks in Washington, DC getting a very large multi-national agency up to speed on using Flare to put its user manuals online. The client had been considering using a custom authoring system from a large consulting company at a cost of several million US dollars. Somehow, the client stumbled across MadCap and got the same results and better functionality, without being held hostage to the consulting company, for a fraction of the cost. I never did find out what the savings were but from the client’s expression, they were very large.)
  • ·   Project management will have to become increasingly rigorous. Doing branching alone requires careful attention; handling branching across several authoring tools, even if well-integrated, requires additional attention. Basically, the days of “winging it” are coming to an end.

Do you need to upgrade to the new versions of Flare and Central? If you don’t do branching, then no. The previous versions of both tools will do fine. But if you do have to worry about branching or see it being a factor in the near future, I definitely recommend upgrading.

About the Author

Neil has over four decades of experience in tech comm, with 36 years in training, consulting, and development for various online formats and tools including WinHelp, HTML Help, CE Help, JavaHelp, WebHelp, Flare, and more. Neil is a frequent speaker at MadWorld and the author of several books about Flare, mobile app development, and project management.

Neil is Madcap certified for Flare and Mimic.  He provides training, consulting, and development for online help and documentation, Flare, Mimic, XML, single-sourcing, topic-based and structured authoring, and content strategy.  He can be reached at nperlin@nperlin.digitalspacemail8.net.

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