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Chapter 3. Navigating the Access User In... > In the Real World—HTML Help or Hindr...

In the Real World—HTML Help or Hindrance

Many new Access 2003 users are upgrading directly from Access 97. The new feature of Access 2003 that users of Access 97 probably will find most traumatic is the move from the traditional Windows help system (WinHelp32) to HTML Help. Changing to HTML Help violates one of the primary tenets of software development—”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” WinHelp32 was a mature, stable help system that was part of the Windows 9x and Windows NT operating systems, and is supported by Windows 2000 and XP. Fortunately for Access book authors, Microsoft’s Office 2003 implementation of HTML help still has the hallmarks of a work in progress.

“If it’s meant to be read, convert it to HTML” is today’s variation on the navy’s “If it don’t move, paint it” rule. It’s a reasonably safe bet that the number of HTML pages on the World Wide Web today exceeds the number of pages of books in the world’s library. When it comes to online help, however, most Access 97 developers believe Microsoft took the “If it ain’t broke, break it” route.

The move to HTML help was inevitable for the following reasons:

  • There are many more Web page designers than help authors. Whether competency in Web page design aids the writing of meaningful help files remains to be seen. Access 2003’s online help offers no supporting evidence.

  • Hyperlinked, forward and back, Web-style navigation is native to the help system. Windows 3.x’s 16-bit WinHelp anticipated many of the navigation features employed by HTML. The WinHelp32 engine in Windows 9x, Me, and NT brought new and useful features to online help.

  • HTML help files in their native .htm format can be deployed from a central intranet server or published on the public Web as a software marketing aid. Compiled .htm (.chm) files that work in conjunction with the HTML help engine save disk space and download time.

  • Microsoft can update your local help files by downloading (pushing) new, corrected, or expanded topics to your PC. This feature doesn’t appeal to many Access users.

  • Internet standards—such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and the Document Object Model (DOM)—combined with Dynamic HTML (DHTML) contribute the capability of customizing the look and feel, respectively, of HTML Help pages.

  • Scripting with Microsoft JScript or VBScript enables dynamic HTML Help. A DHTML event model and scripting eliminates the need to write custom help DLLs to add new types of action to help files.

  • Microsoft saves the time and effort—and thus expense—of converting WinHelp32 .hlp files to HTML for publication on the www.microsoft.com Web site.

The real problem with the HTML help in Office 2003 isn’t the change in help file format. Primary user complaints are elimination of useful help features—such as context-sensitive (Shift+F1 or What’s This?) help and the keyword index—and reliance on a much less than perfect inference engine to generate a relevant help topic list. Rephrasing a question seldom leads to more on-topic hits.

HTML help files combine content and presentation; a primary objective of XML is to separate data and its formatting. Divorcing content from presentation makes it much simpler to update help topics. You can expect future versions of Access and the other Office members to move to XML encoding of help content and use Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT) to format the XML content for display. For example, an XML document (...\Office11\Actoc.xml) generates Access 2003’s Table of Contents task pane page. It’s likely that every Microsoft product from now on will sport XML features to support “rich content.” Only time will tell whether XML-based online help will offer any improvement over Access 97’s online WinHelp32 system.

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