I know the move from the ol’ Winhelp to HTML Help was meant to be a good thing (and at the time made my life easier, as I could re-use HTML formatted text more easily), but the loss of the very handy “What Is?” help originally trumpeted in Win95 is a shame.
Nowadays if you click the question mark on Word 2003’s options screen, for instance, it just chucks you onto a help page which covers the entire dialog. Doesn’t even open the bit that talks about the tab you were on. They really should have ensured that all the functionality of Winhelp 4 (that fine granularity of context-senstivity) was available in HTMLHelp. (Is it? Did the Word 2003 people just get lazy?)
In fact, I reckon what they should have done was improve the help development tools, but leave the underlying technology alone. Winhelp4 worked well for users, but its authoring was a real pain. That’s why tools like RoboHelp won sales. If MS could have come up with a way of easily developing your help in HTML, but having it compile into Winhelp4, they would have been onto a winner. In the days before everyone had IE, it would have got around the issues with poor Win95 users having to install HTMLHelp (and thus, IE 3+), and suffering the performance hit of having to load up the browser just to look at the help.
Of course, at the time MS would have been trying to entrench IE’s hold on every desktop. Which I guess explains why they did it their way.
In my previous life as a tech writer, I wrote a LOT of help. I remember being very
disappointed with HTML Help, and particularly the lack of a replacement for What’s This Help.
What MS did with Office 2000 (and XP I think) is to use Winhelp for field help and HTML
Help for the rest. This worked fine, and will still work fine for anyone who needs to create
help for their own apps, as the Winhelp is likely to be part of Windows for the forseeable
Shortly after HTML Help was launched, MS got converted into believing in the internet, and
the product was largely abandoned. There was a brief effort to create what was known as
Help 2, but that never got out of beta. They are now focusing on a new XML-based help model
for their forthcoming Longhorn release of Windows. You can read about it at
http://www.hyperwrite.com/aspscripts/framer.asp?target=../features/helplonghorn.htm, or try
Googling ‘Longhorn Help’.