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Sageline Interview with Peter Plamondon (#2)

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More great Help memorabilia. Bill Meisheid (Sageline Publishing) in a second interview with Peter Plamondon [MSFT]
at Help University Conference in Chicago (Nov 3rd, 1998). The first interview can be found here

Thanks Bill for allowing us to republish this material on www.helpmvp.com



An Interview with Peter Plamondon (November 3, 1998 at Info Online)
Peter Plamondon is a technical evangelist in Microsoft's Developer Relations Group. You many have seen him at the various Help conferences manning the Microsoft booth and making sure everything is working smoothly.
Bill

Peter. Before we do a follow-up to our earlier July interview I would like to preface this edition with a response to false statement about HTML Help that I posted to Techwriter-L (edited for grammar, not content)

 
Poster

Microsoft is trying to position its Help development as needing its browser components, which are part of Internet Explorer. It's clearly a backhanded tactic to validate the claim that IE is part of the actual operating system.

My reply

The help display engine has always been part of the operating system since Microsoft started GUI-based OSs. It is the only way to guarantee a usable help system for the OS itself. Windows 98 uses HTML Help as its basic help engine, though WinHelp currently still handles all popups.

The layout engine that is tied to hh.exe (HTML Help's runtime) is Shdocvw.dll, the layout engine for IE. Besides the economy of scale you get by using only one layout engine for both, the real issues for help authoring concerns revolve around basic functionality such as compression, indexing, TOC, related topics, and the like, that general browsers are not equipped to handle. Even if you did program something that could do this stuff in something like Java, (but why on Windows?) it would be slooowwww (see Sun's JavaHelp which they are still working on two years later)

Poster

But WinHelp systems can and do run on a Mac, and with assistance, on Unix boxes.

My reply

The assistance is a native executable (mostly non MS) that reads the hlp format. You cannot run unmodified 32 bit help on other platforms. Bristol supplies a Unix help browser and MS, for use with their apps, supplied one for Apple, though several third parties used to supply their own Mac help browser. However, they all require you to tweak the standard help file and only offer a subset of 32 bit WinHelp. Anyone could do the same approach for HTML Help.

Poster

Within a year or two we should see the growth of a truly platform- and language-independent user assistance technology. That's what to really plan for.

My reply

Would you like to elaborate what you see coming? By platform independent do you mean Windows, Mac, and Unix or do you mean browser independent? Since Netscape refuses to support ActiveX, it will not support compiled HTML Help, the Microsoft platform standard.

I disagree with your assessment that HTML Help is a hacked system. It is exactly the opposite. HTML Help is based on a common approach with IE, which leverages collateral development, and has been targeted from the beginning to be fully integrated into its related technologies. Rather than being a hack, it is has been developed using a spiral development, structured approach. I have known Ralph Walden, the architect, since the early days of 32 bit WinHelp and I can assure you that while the decision to shift the whole company to an HTML emphasis came from "Bill" and was an adjustment to the sudden and unexpected emergence of the web, Ralph was happy to embrace the idea since it opened up significant possibilities for the future of help design.

Remember that HTML Help was originally targeted as the help system for the next version of Microsoft Windows (Windows 98). It has been delivered. It is not required to run anywhere else to meet its design requirements, which are consistent with all previous versions of help. It has never been touted as a cross platform information solution but only as the help and information system for Windows and Windows-based applications. Since the release of version 1.2 the OS no longer sees it as a browser. This means that it need not interfere in any way with Netscape or Opera or any other browser. All of its settings are independent

Peter

Well said. It would have been hard to justify continued investment in the WinHelp compiler and viewer given the greater richness and industry standard support available through browser technology. Not only does it make sense from an engineering standpoint to take advantage of the browser and the ongoing investment it's receiving, browser technology delivers a superior solution to users, and provides a richer environment for help authors.

Bill

Thank you. Since our last interview, a number of things have changed. Shane McRoberts was hired as program manager; HTML Help version 1.2 has been released; the installation and registration problems of the browser components are about to be fixed; and you are launching several new initiatives to increase the support of HTML Help.

Let's start with the status of help authors getting an installable set of browser components that actually works.

Peter

We now have a redistribution license on the Microsoft web site, which is designed specifically for people who want to redistribute the Internet Explorer [IE] components, the underlying engine and functionality, rather than redistributing a browser.

While some vendors, such as an Internet service provider, might want to customize the look of IE so that it might display the home page of the service and have a default set of Favorites related to the ISP services, that is not at all what help authors want. They just want to be able to install the browser engine so they can take advantage of the full capabilities of HTML Help and IE.

This browser engine license is called Microsoft Internet Explorer Operating System Components license. To use this process requires a series of steps that includes registering on the site. The URL for this license is:
http://ieak.microsoft.com/isvlicense.asp

[Note:We have put together a procedure for the IEAK license registration and download to assist you.]
Bill

There were numerous problems with the original attempt at providing help authors with a truly silent install, that didn't attempt to modify the user's existing environment, but only supply the necessary components to run HTML Help.

Peter

We hope that the current approach addresses the need of help authors for a truly silent install. With the earlier approach we found that there were three artifacts that impinged on the intended silent installation of the IE 4.0 components. The first was the Channel Bar, obviously a blatant in your face intrusion; the second was the invitation to take the Guided Tour of Internet Explorer; the third was putting the Internet Explorer icon on the desktop, with the related side effect of making IE the default browser.

Since then we have worked with the setup team to figure out ways to eliminate all of those problems. Essentially what is involved is to make changes to the registry. This is something that an organization's programming staff can easily do since its straightforward stuff for them. However, it is not something an author would usually be able to do.

It's worth noting that all these setup issues have been addressed, and some significant enhancements added to setup for IE 5.0, which will be releases in Q1'99.

Bill

This means that anyone trying just to distribute information would have to get a programmer involved to help them make the necessary registry changes if they wanted to include a silent install of IE.

Peter

Yes. That brings us back to the original idea of HHRun, which we had talked about early on. The intention of the HHRun tool was to install Internet Explorer's runtime components and all of the HTML Help components.

However, as we examined the scenario of creating a help project, creating an installation, and now that installation needing to manipulate the registry to suppress the artifacts of the installation, we realized that rather than Microsoft putting this type of package together, it would provide a better experience for the author and their customers if the authoring tools vendors handled this. That way they could incorporate the necessary components in the process of building the help project and its setup program, and handle any issues specific to your project.

There has been substantial interest among the tool vendors in providing this type of solution for some time but we were unsuccessful in getting them the information they needed until recently. So now I am confident that we will see from tool vendors the capability to build a simple installation solution around your help project. So an author could build the installation package as part of building their help system, without having to turn to a programmer.

Bill

Where would this leave people who are not using one of the major help authoring tool vendors? I would expect the makers of Doc To Help, ForeHelp, HDK, and RoboHELP to move in this direction, but not everyone producing HTML uses these vendors. There are a large number of people using tools like HomeSite and FrontPage to produce HTML Help source files. What are they going to do?

Peter

If you are writing an HTML Help system for a software package you will need to go to whoever is building the installation package and provide them with the setup instructions and registry entries for the silent installation. That means someone in your organization has to register on the IEAK site for the MSIEOS components license. If you are writing a standalone help system for a employee handbook, you may be stuck. I seem to recall shareware registry manipulation tools that might be useful, but don't have a specific procedure I can provide.

Bill

It would be helpful if this whole process is adequately explained for those who have to roll their own installation. Since, if it is not, where will people go for solutions? I can't see the HTML Help MVPs bridging that gap.

Peter

That concern leads us into a related topic covering some of what has been happening at the Info Online Conference in Chicago. One of the things we have been hearing from conference attendees is that while Shane McRoberts and I tell them about all the wonderful things they can do with HTML Help, we don't have very good samples to give them.

One of the things we are looking to do is to work consultants in the HTML Help space to provide case studies, "how to" articles, and examples of HTML Help projects and functionality that we will post on the HTML Help web site.

Bill

So you want to broaden the current web site from just introducing the technology to giving a well rounded presentation of its use?

Peter

Exactly. There are many people who have invested a great deal of time and effort in learning different skills related to HTML Help, such as HTML coding and scripting, that is useful in help and information systems. We want to give these folks an opportunity to share their expertise and be recognized for their efforts. This would be particularly useful for people whose business is doing consulting work. They need to get their information out to the people who need their assistance.

We plan on setting up a resource area on the HTML Help web site that contains these articles, samples, case studies of successful deployments of HTML Help, along with products and corporate contact information. This will make useful information available to everyone in the authoring community, and consultants and organizations with the necessary skills and background will get exposure. It is a win-win situation for everybody.

We are also looking for a way to recognize the folks who have made the intellectual investment necessary to train people in using HTML Help. This would be more than a tool certification; it would focus expertise in the underlying HTML Help technology.

We have set the stage for this with the ISV program announced here at the Info Online Conference by Help University and Influent Technology Group, in cooperation with Microsoft. While this initially focuses on tool vendors supporting HTML Help, Help University and Influent have done a number of really smart things. They are creating a CD-ROM for their future conferences that will offer a wide range of materials including trial versions of participating vendors' software. This CD will be distributed to conference attendees. After the conference, it will also be available from the Influent web site. This means that anyone can get this information, not just those who attend the Info Online conferences.

Bill

Don't Help University and Influent also have some exceptional offerings for potential vendors?

Peter

Yes. In addition to giving discounts for exhibiting at the Info Online conferences, they have very smartly wrapped several Microsoft programs, such as the MSDN ISV program, into a comprehensive vendor package. This will enable vendors to get hooked up with Microsoft to get a variety of benefits. These include a wide range co-marketing options that reduce the cost to put ad banners on interesting web sites, get press releases out across the wire, and much more. It also includes discounted attendance at Microsoft developer conferences and events and a MSDN Universal license (a $2,499US value) at no cost.

Bill

It sounds like this program will enable smaller vendors and creators of shareware and freeware programs supporting HTML Help to get the exposure and support they need to be successful.

Peter Yes, it does. In addition, it gives us additional input for our development efforts since these vendors will be tied into our briefings about enhancements to HTML Help as well as getting early looks at the technology, which gives us feedback both for QA and things we should be doing with the product. If you want more information on this HTML Help ISV initiative, I would suggest logging onto the Info Online web site (http://www.io-conference.com) for more information.
Bill

The ISV initiative should encourage small companies to think about developing tools and add-ins for HTML Help. Let's shift for a moment back to the idea you expressed earlier about expanding the Microsoft HTML Help web site. You talked about recognizing people who have "made the intellectual investment necessary to train people in using HTML Help." How do you see these people getting recognized?

Peter

We want to find a way to recognize the trainers out there who have a demonstrated skill within the HTML Help technology. While we don't have anything to announce on that front yet, it is an area we definitely want to pursue.

Bill

It sounds like you are saying that in addition to being able to train someone on a specific tool, the status of most trainers today, you want to recognize those people who can go beyond the tool itself and help people with underlying technology of HTML Help.

Peter

The different tool vendors have their own certification programs, which are intended to identify people who know how to instruct people on using their tool. I think it's great that the venders in the HTML Help area recognize the people who are the qualified trainers on their tools. However, that may not reflect a deep knowledge of the HTML Help technology itself. This makes it difficult for companies who are not using one of the current HTML Help tools to find someone qualified to instruct them on HTML Help. Additionally, they cannot be sure that a person qualified in one of the tools can deal with the in-depth HTML Help issues a company may face.

To address this need and to identify trainers and consultants that have a depth of knowledge about HTML Help I think we need to do some type of program that recognizes the people who built up that deeper knowledge of HTML Help. We want to hear from trainers, consultants, and those who need trainers and consultants on how best to implement this recognition.

Bill

One area of recognition that does exist is the HTML Help MVPs. Would you like to say something about the HTML Help MVP program and how people can nominate people for that recognition?

Peter

The MVP program at Microsoft has a long history, going back to the first release of Microsoft Visual Basic. At that time Microsoft recognized that certain people in the online community would step forward and offer to share their expertise with others. So, to recognize those special people who were already sharing their expertise, and to encourage others to join in, the MVP (Most Valued Professional) program was created. It is possible that the help authoring community does not understand that this is an end user driven activity.

Bill

That may be because the initial four were nominated internally by the HTML Help team.

Peter

In the early days of HTML Help, we identified a group of four people, who, at the time, were making the intellectual investment in HTML Help and were in a position to help folks online. Since then, many additional people beyond those original four have stepped up and are giving much needed assistance to the authoring community. We would very much like to recognize the individuals doing that.

However, rather than having us continue to select people to give this recognition to, it is time for the authoring community to step up and nominate their choices for people to be added to the HTML Help MVPs. To accomplish that, I have created an email alias which is hhmvp(@)microsoft.com. If you want to nominate someone or even yourself to be a MVP, send the name and why you believe they should be recognized to that email address (hhmvp(@)microsoft.com). We will announce the new slate of HTML Help MVPs as determined by the help authoring community, at the WinWriters conference in Seattle.

Bill

What do you see happening between the recent release of HTML Help 1.2 and the next industry gathering in February at WinWriters?

Peter

The next release of HTML Help will probably be concurrent with the release of Windows 2000 (formerly called Windows NT 5.0). This will be version 1.3 and will support the multilingual technology that lets you install English Windows 2000 system on a system, but have the user interface for each program be in whatever language you want.

Bill

That means you could have a dynamic interface that allows the user to select the language of their choice, both in the application and the help system.

Peter

Yes. The language interface for the dialog boxes, menus, error messages, etc. will no longer tied to the operating system but will be at the application level. There are changes that need to be made to HTML Help to support this interface model.

This new technology will allow you to do two things independently. First, you will be able to change all of the interface elements to also match the chosen language. Secondly, you will be able to adjust the help content to match the desired language using exclusive information types. You have been able to change the content but now you will be able to change the interface.

Bill

Since Windows 2000 won't be ready for release by the WinWriters conference, what changes do you see coming by the February time frame?

Peter

For WinWriters, we will be able to assess the impact and usage of HTML Help 1.2. In addition we are working with Joe Welinski of WinWriters to have a Microsoft track at the conference that will have six Microsoft groups talk about the HTML Help systems they have developed, the special challenges they faced, and how they overcame them.

We also have a tradition over the last several years at WinWriters of being a bit "off-the-wall". A couple years ago we had the "juggling brains" beanbags. Last year, we had the alien squishy heads. So the challenge is to come up with something as unique and interesting for this year's event. Faith Green from Progressive Strategies is helping me come up with something suitably whacky.

Back to technology in the February timeframe. We are not going to have a new release in that time frame. The 1.3 release will later in 1999, with Windows 2000. This should give the authoring community a chance to consolidate and dig into version 1.2, to try out the features. The feature set should be fairly stable for quite some time. The 1.3 release will add the multi-lingual interface, but will not introduce a new feature set. So, this is a great time to reflect on the fact that HTML Help will be shipping in all of Microsoft's operating systems, development tools, BackOffice Suite and Office 2000. It will be good time to come up to speed on dynamic HTML, scripting and how to use them in HTML Help systems.

Bill

By way of closing, I would like to reiterate the need for a clear and simplified method of distributing the components necessary for HTML Help on Windows 95 and NT 4 operating systems. Is there anything you would like to add?

Peter

Internet Explorer 5.0 will have the silent installation characteristics that the vast majority of help authors are seeking. Until then, we're providing information so with assistance from a programmer, the IE 4.0 components can be installed silently. It's interesting to look back on the last 10 years of WinHelp, and almost 2 years of HTML Help. HTML Help builds on the technical evolution of WinHelp and feedback on WinHelp from the help community, to deliver a far richer, standards based environment for delivering online assistance. It's been a wild ride getting to where we are today, and for everyone who's invested in learning HTML Help, provided feedback, and shipped their HTML Help-based systems - thanks for helping us put this powerful technology in users' hands!

Bill

Thank you, Peter, for again making yourself available for an interview.

Peter

You're welcome.


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