A brief introduction to Windows Help
Windows Help, known by developers simply as WinHelp, is used by the Microsoft Windows operating system primarily to display help information in a structured, formatted and hyperlinked text format. All major operating systems have their own hypertext help format. WinHelp was first introduced with Windows 3.0 and greatly enhanced with Windows 3.1. Every Windows installation from 3.0 onward includes the WinHelp viewer, and Microsoft has promised that new versions of Windows are likely to support the Windows 3.1 Help standard until at least the year 2000.
The newer Windows NT 3.51 and Windows 95 operating systems featured enhancements to Microsoft's original hypertext delivery system and provided a new, faster, more flexible 32 bit help engine known as WinHelp 4.0. Many existing tools capable of processing Windows 3.1s 16 bit help files are incompatible with the 32 bit helpfiles generated by Microsofts new HCRTF.EXE Help compiler. Help to RTF was one of the first tools capable of handling the new file format, and continues to provide state-of-the-art support for 32 bit Help.
Microsoft also developed an enhanced version of WinHelp known as Multimedia Viewer. Usually known simply as Viewer, this hypertext system uses Help-like files with the extension .MVB, and this file format is most commonly used for distributing hypertext information distributed on CD. Viewer is also supported, to an extent, by Help to RTF. It can process Multimedia Viewer files for printing or document storage, usually with all the information youll ever need, but some more advanced document formatting and content conversion features are not available.
MediaView is yet another hypertext platform from Microsoft based on the same technology as WinHelp and Viewer and supports a whole new set of features. MediaView files are usually identified by .M13 or .M14 extensions, but sometimes they are renamed to .MVB. Help to RTF can process MediaView 1.3 files as well.
Multimedia Viewer files are warranted to provide version 2.0 conversion and pre-print processing support. MediaView files designed for the version 1.3 viewer are also supported. (MediaView files designed for use with MediaView 1.4, which usually have file extensions of .M14, are not officially supported.)
While Microsoft intended WinHelp to be used primarily for supporting applications with online help, WinHelp has since become an extremely popular platform for distributing all types of text information, from price lists and catalogs, historical documents in electronic form, reference works, promotional brochures-on-disk to periodicals in WinHelp format and even some utilities and stand-alone applications. Authors tend to prefer its simplicity and flexibility to the much more complex Viewer and MediaView alternatives.
The text and image content of these files is often more useful in an alternative form, such as a printed document or collection of separate disk files and documents. Unlike HTML browsers, neither the 16 or 32 bit WinHelp viewers offer an easy method for separating the content from the page itself. Thats where Help to RTF comes in.
Printing Help Files: Help to RTFs greatest strength
As powerful as the WinHelp engine is as a hypertext display engine, it lacks the ability to allow the printing of entire helpfiles. It only allows printing on a topic-by-topic basis. The printed output provides few of the formatting and visual cues you have come to expect from quality documentation. There are no page numbers, indexes, tables of contents or page references in standard WinHelp printouts.
This is especially troublesome for firms who rely on shareware as a distribution method. Most commercial programs include a printed handbook, but a shareware evaluation copy cant. If youre a serious user of a given piece of software, eventually youll want the same quality of documentation you would get from a store-bought software package.
The trend toward paperless delivery is growing too, leaving more and more publishers with a difficult choice...either include documentation as a separate file and make the shareware or floppy disk archive that much larger, costlier to download or reproduce and more cumbersome to store on your system, or provide a way to make the helpfile, which is usually compiled in a compressed format, serve double duty as both online help and documentation. Most shareware developers choose the latter solution, and so did we.
The trend to paperless software distribution makes Help to RTF an ideal solution for developers and end users alike. While we developed Help to RTF to satisfy our users needs, the response was so strong that we chose to offer Help to RTF to individual users for processing all their helpfiles, and to provide a network editon so that all users on a single domain can easily generate manual-quality printed documentation from a compiled helpfile for the cost of less than three Help to RTF licenses.
Recompilable Help projects: an added benefit for developers and serious users
While Microsoft no longer supports WinHelp or Multimedia Viewer, that hasnt stopped these hypertext platforms from growing faster and becoming more popular with authors and developers with each passing year. HTML Help is replacing the current WinHelp format, but developers and authors still support these platforms. Gigabytes upon gigabytes of new Help, Multimedia Viewer and MediaView titles are emerging every month.
There is an enormous quantity of data, text, reference, prose and periodical information available, and a great deal more coming. HTML Help is unlikely to replace WinHelp in a big way until at least mid-1998. But all this data has little long-term value if you cant do anything but stare at it on your screen. And unfortunately, helpfiles and Viewer titles are compiled software, just like programs. They are not editable documents and dont have the flexibility of .DOC and .TXT files. If you want to combine several files into a larger database file, add support for further development tools, recompile a helpfile with support for full-text retrieval, or update and convert the document to HTML, youre stuck. Without the proper tools, you cant even get at the contents of the .HLP or .MVB.
Help to RTF provides the lowest cost solution available for this problem. It provides not just the ability to generate more flexible RTF output for printing and document storage, but also allows you to generate a completely recompilable Help project, complete with all text, formatting, jumps, graphics, keywords, secondary windows and more, exactly as the original author intended them to appear.
The RTF file format is a documented file format that uses an industry-standard text tagging syntax (RTF tagging is a little like HTML tagging), so the RTF source documents extracted from helpfiles can be reused and modified in just about any fashion you wish.