Online help

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This article is about documentation included with software. For product documentation maintained over the Internet, see web help.
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Online help is topic-oriented, procedural or reference information delivered through computer software. It is a form of user assistance. Most online help is designed to give assistance in the use of a software application or operating system, but can also be used to present information on a broad range of subjects. When online help is linked to the state of the application (what the user is doing), it is called Context-sensitive help.

Benefits[edit]

Online help has largely replaced live customer support. Before its availability, support could only be given through printed documentation (limited), mail (long wait) or telephone (expensive).

When customers troubleshoot their own problems, quite often they can get to a solution by themselves, saving time and money for themselves and the company. More companies can afford this kind of help system, allowing them to compete with the large companies more effectively.

Platforms[edit]

Online help is created using help authoring tools. It is delivered in a wide variety of formats, some proprietary and some open-standard, including:

  • Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which includes HTML Help, HTML-based Help, JavaHelp, and Oracle Help
  • Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF)

Online help is also provided via live chat systems, one step removed from telephone calls. This allows the support person to conduct several support sessions simultaneously, thus reducing costs. The transcript is immediately availability and can be sent to the customer right after the session ends.

The chat feature also reduces the intense negativity that can be directed at customer support personnel, requiring the customer to calm down and articulate his or her thoughts more clearly.

DITA and DocBook[edit]

The Open Source tool DocBook XSL can also generate help files and is an excellent resource for single source publishing. From one source, DocBook can generate PDF, JavaHelp, WebHelp, eBook and many more formats (even .chm files if required). The same with DITA, which is even favored for that purpose.

Microsoft help platforms[edit]

Microsoft develops the platforms for delivering help systems in the Microsoft Windows operating system.

Platform name Description Public?
Microsoft QuickHelp Ralph Walden joined Microsoft in 1987 and wrote an online help system for MS-DOS and OS/2 called QuickHelp. Ralph was also primarily responsible for WinHelp and HTML Help 1.x. No
help command Available in MS-DOS, OS/2 and Windows No
Microsoft WinHelp (.hlp) Based on the Rich Text Format, this was the industry standard for Windows 3.1 and Windows 95/NT. The popular Windows Help program (WinHlp32.exe) was included with all Windows operating systems from Windows 3.0 until the Windows XP operating system. However, the help engine is not included with Windows Vista and is only available as a download.[1] Yes
HTML Help (.chm) Also known as Microsoft Compiled HTML Help (the name of its file format), it based on HTML and other data such as images and JavaScript. HTML Help 1.0 was released in 1997. In 2006, it was available from Microsoft as HTML Help 1.4. Yes
Help and Support Center A deprecated online help system in Windows Me and Windows XP No
Microsoft Help 2 (.hxs) In 2001, Microsoft announced plans for a wide release of HTML Help 2.0, which came to be called Microsoft Help 2. This platform was developed by Microsoft and shipped in 2002 as the help format for Visual Studio .NET, MSDN Library and TechNet products, but Microsoft announced it had cancelled plans to make the format publicly available. Microsoft Help 2 was also used as the help format in Office 2007. No
AP Help 1.0 (.h1s) Assistance Platform Help is based on Microsoft Assistance Markup Language. It is the format developed for and shipped with Windows Vista. It will not be made publicly available as an authoring platform for other software vendors, but will be used by Microsoft, OEMs, and certain corporate users. Version 2.0 of the Assistance Platform Help engine is currently on hold. No
Microsoft Help Viewer 1.0 (.mshc) The help system for Visual Studio 2010, and the successor for Microsoft Help 2. No

Other platforms[edit]

Platform name Description
HelpConsole (local html files or web-based) IIS based system, with a standard navigation tree and content area, viewable with a web browser, supports JS, Flash, HTML5, Embedded presentations etc. Since it is web-based, it works on Windows, Linux, and virtually all other Operating System.
AmigaGuide (.guide) The official hypertext document file format designed for the Amiga.
Apple Help (.HELP) Apple Computer's proprietary help platform for the Mac OS 8.5+ operating system.
WebHelp MadCap Software's cross-platform, browser-based WebHelp[2]
Sun JavaHelp (.js) A platform-independent help system written in Java programming language by Sun Microsystems. It runs on any platform and browser that supports the Java Runtime Environment (JRE).
Oracle Help Two formats developed by the Oracle Corporation: Oracle Help for Java (OHJ) and Oracle Help for Web (OHW).[3]
Help library (.HLB) The official help file format designed for VMS.
DotNetHelp A new Windows help format, as an alternative to the .chm format, that also supports .NET applications.
Texinfo (also known as the "info") The official documentation system for the GNU project.
Unix man pages The standard method used to document Unix commands.
Information Presentation Facility (IPF) The help system used by IBM's OS/2 system, eComStation and is the official documentation system for the fpGUI Toolkit project.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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