Victory! "Microsoft moving Help system to HTML format"

Rohit Khare (
Mon, 8 Jul 96 09:36:48 -0400

As I predicted to TimBL last week, the other shoe has dropped. The 1991
alt.hypertext challenge to build a 'networked version of MS Windows Help' has
come full circle.

Now THIS I wish I could have editorialized about in Issue #3 of W3J...

Ob W3C Work Item: so, who's designing HTML conditional links, as this article
suggests we will soon be doing?


PS. Anyone else retching at the name for Jakarta: Visual J++?

PPS. I like how the author immediately follows in the second paragraph with
"HTML browsers like Netscape Navigator"

P3S: The US Defense Department licensed 180,000 copies of Netscape last week.


July 8, 1996 9:00 AM ET
Microsoft moving Help system to HTML format
Plans access to files via InfoViewer

By _Norvin Leach_

Microsoft Corp., making a highly visible shift toward Internet standards, is
migrating its Help files and proprietary viewer to the HTML format.

Moving Help files to HTML would enable users to access online help from any
compliant viewer, such as Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator browser.

Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., said it hopes to release new HTML-based Help
files with a viewer called InfoViewer in this fall's update of Developer
Studio. Robert Muglia, Microsoft vice president of development tools,
discussed the changes at a recent meeting of the Washington Software and
Digital Media Alliance, in Bellevue, Wash.

Developer Studio is the development environment shell that houses tools such
as Visual C++ and Visual J++, also known as Jakarta.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, Microsoft plans to equip all its development
tools and applications, including its Office suite, with HTML Help files,
Muglia said.

The changes eventually will affect all third-party Windows applications as
well, since almost all use the Microsoft Help engine.

Moving Help files to HTML "is consistent with the intranet paradigm we're
moving to," said Joseph Schwartz, principal technologist for Hanover Square
Associates Inc., consultants to Bankers Trust Co., in New York. "People
shouldn't have to leave their browser to get online help."

In addition, the current search engine in Microsoft's Help system is more
unwieldy than the free-text search engines available for HTML, Schwartz said.

Microsoft began exploring the possibility of using HTML in Help last year.

"At that time, our user-education people only saw it as an interesting toy.
It didn't have things like the ability to point into graphics or provide
animation," said Chris Williams, business unit manager. "But HTML is maturing
like a quickly growing weed, and now a lot of our user-education people are
seeing how useful it can be."

Changing the format is technically rather simple--Microsoft has already
created a demonstration that shows Visual C++ Help in HTML format. The
roadblocks are the time it will take to convert the thousands of documents in
Microsoft's databases and a few questions of implementation.

Some of the implementation issues will be handled through the W3C (World Wide
Web Consortium), where Microsoft is seeking approval for additional HTML tags
such as dynamic links. These links are added to code but do not appear on a
page until they are activated. HTML does not currently support these links,
but Help needs them because Microsoft products are often installed piecemeal.

"You wouldn't want every reference to Excel in a Visual Basic help file to
show up as a link if you don't have Excel loaded," said Williams.

Other problems to be settled include compression and compatibility.

Help requires compression to download files, since each Help file can consist
of hundreds, even thousands of topics. Microsoft wants the W3C to approve a
compressed-file format that will let users download many compressed pages at
once, instead of just one page at a time. Microsoft is also seeking approval
for a method to create an index and a table of contents for the files.

The compatibility problem will crop up when existing applications try to find
these new files.

Almost all third-party applications use the Windows Help engine by making
calls to the Help API. However, the API finds and loads only Help-format
files. Microsoft will need to provide extensions or a compatibility layer to
let current applications access the new Help system.