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XML helps add Flash to online Help

Help screens in applications may never look the same as eHelp Corp., the San Diego-based maker of RoboHelp, previews XML-enabled Flash capabilities in its new help authoring tool for developers and tech writers.

FlashHelp, being previewed in RoboHelp X4, which was released by eHelp at the end of May, includes the first full implementation of XML technology in the popular Help authoring tool, said Mike Hamilton, product manager. It takes advantage of the XML capability that allows the same data to be presented in a variety of user interfaces. RoboHelp supports standard Web browsers, Microsoft Windows, Apple Computer MAC OS X, Linux on IBM Corp. and "other flavors of Linux," according to eHelp officials.

The implementation of Flash from San Francisco-based Macromedia Inc. is designed to spice up the traditionally text-based help screens with video, animation and sound, while minimizing bandwidth requirements, said Hamilton. FlashHelp accomplishes this by layering HTML, XML and Flash.

"FlashHelp has three distinct layers in a best-of-breed approach," he explained. "There's a presentation layer that is all done in Flash. The reason we chose Flash for that presentation layer is because of its consistency across platforms, its flexibility and rich environment."

XML is deployed in what Hamilton calls the navigation layer, where meta data is needed to handle large amounts of information required for help in complex systems.

"In a large Help system, you could easily have thousands or even tens of thousands of links, cross-references and hyperlinks," Hamilton said. "We store all of that data for the navigation components in XML files. We then 'bubble' that information up through that Flash presentation layer using XML source and presenting it through the Flash."

The third layer is text content, where eHelp continues to rely on HTML, because, as Hamilton explained, it offers "the rich formatting capabilities for bullets, lists, tables ... things of that nature."

FlashHelp is scheduled to be available later this summer.

About the Author

Rich Seeley is Web Editor for Campus Technology.

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