Windows Software Help Files Formats
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Are you still wondering which help file format to use for your Windows
software? The selection depends on your software and on the information that is
in your help files. Each help file format has its own unique features that may
be useful in certain situations. Generally, I would recommend that you use
different help files for different situations.
HTML (On-line manual): Hypertext Markup Language
The help system may consist of number of HTML pages. Each page is usually
devoted to a specific topic and includes cross-links to other HTML pages. Often,
there is a table of contents that allows fast navigation across the topic areas.
Additionally, pages may contain special navigation links: next page, previous
page, indexes, etc.
Usually the HTML help pages are uploaded on the product's Website. HTML is
preferable if your software is platform independent and users can also read the
help file in their Web browsers on any operating system. Storing help files as
HTML pages on your web site is also useful if you frequently update your
documentation by adding new topics and pages. In this case, users do not have to
download the entire help file after each update to their computer.
Moreover, the HTML manual which is a part of your website generates a
targeted traffic. People can easily find your product because the online help
allows your website to be more visible in relevant search results on search
engines. The new visitors will consider your products seriously when they see a
well made help system. Also, if a first time users experience difficulties with
your software and needs technical support, you may easily resolve the issue by
referring them to a particular page of your online help. With just one click,
the users will see screenshots and explanations which will help them to solve
CHM (HTMLHelp): Microsoft Compressed HTML Help
CHM is a help format introduced by Microsoft in 1997. The CHM help file is a
set of web pages written in a subset of HTML and compressed together with LZX
compression. The CHM file has a hyperlinked table of contents. It may also
contain word indexes; and therefore, The CHM format is optimized for reading and
The CHM file seems to be the most convenient way to deliver your software
help in a single indexed file together with your program. Through the functions
provided by hhctrl.ocx library, you may invoke HTMLHelp functions from any
programming language. This HTMLhelp API allows opening a specific topic within
the CHM file. Thus, with the CHM file you can easily implement a context
sensitive help functionality in your software application.
For Windows users, this help file can be compiled with the HTML Help
Workshop, which is distributed by Microsoft at no charge. Besides the HTML Help
Workshop, there are commercial tools for making CHM files faster and easier.
Although the CHM format was originally invented for the Windows platform,
there are some tools which can read and navigate these files (e.g. xCHM,
KchmViewer, GnoCHM, Chmox for OS X, or Chamonix for OS X), but they lack the
various features of the Microsoft Windows tools.
HLP: Microsoft WinHelp
HLP (Microsoft WinHelp) is a proprietary format for help files that can be
displayed by the Microsoft Help browser (winhelp.exe or winhlp32.exe modules).
WinHelp 1.0 was introduced by Microsoft in 1990.
The source files require that you compile a .hlp file consisting of one or
more Rich Text Format (RTF) documents and a help project file with the extension
.hpj, along with any image files (.bmp, .wmf, or .shg) that are used within the
Help file. An optional table of contents file with the extension .cnt can also
be created for use with the .hlp file. The final help file can be compiled using
a WinHelp compiler, which is distributed by Microsoft at no charge or by using a
commercial help authoring program.
Although less advanced than the later CHM (Microsoft Compressed HTML Help)
format, HLP remains a popular Help platform from the Windows 3.0 platform
through to Windows XP. Support of HLP files was removed in Windows Vista;
therefore the HLP file format is considered obsolete.
PDF: Portable Document Format
PDF is a document file format created by Adobe Systems in 1993 and is now
being prepared for submission as an ISO standard. Each PDF file encapsulates the
text, fonts, images, and vector graphics that compose the document. While PDF
can describe very simple one page documents, it may also be used for multiple
pages, complex documents that use a variety of fonts, graphics, colors, and
The PDF help file is preferable for platform independent applications because
it is used for representing two-dimensional documents in a device independent
and resolution independent fixed-layout format. PDF supports forms, links, and
bookmarks that allow easy navigation in the document. Because PDF represents
documents as a sequential set of pages, it is convenient for printing. PDF
supports encryption and digital rights management restrictions.
You can distribute your PDF help file with your software as well as store it
remotely on your website. Web search engines, like Google, may index the text
content of the PDF file and it will appear in the relevant search engine
There are many programs for creating PDFs, including the PDF printing
capability built in to Mac OS X, the multi-platform OpenOffice.org, Microsoft
Office 2007 (a free download from Microsoft is required), PDF print drivers for
Microsoft Windows, and Adobe Acrobat itself. There is also specialized software
for editing PDF files.
RTF: Rich Text Format & DOC: Microsoft Word
RTF is a proprietary document file format developed by DEC in 1987 for
cross-platform document interchange. Then, RTF format was purchased by Microsoft
around 1990, who extended the standard. Most text processors are able to read
and write RTF documents.
DOC (an abbreviation of 'document') is a Microsoft Word file format.
Proprietary DOC files often contain more text formatting information (as well as
scripts and 'undo' information) than files using RTF and HTML, but are usually
Like PDF, RTF & DOC are good for printing documentation, while they may look
slightly different in various readers on different operating systems,
specifically graphics and embedded objects. These formats may be less convenient
for complex documents with multiple pages and objects because of the significant
amount of computer memory consumed while being displayed.
These formats may be created with numerous text editing software programs as
well as with specialized help authoring software that supports RTF\DOC output.
TXT: Plain Text File
TXT is a computer file which contains only ordinary textual characters with
essentially no formatting. Text file is meant to be read as is. The main
disadvantages of using TXT files for help are: no graphics, formatting, or
navigation. As a result, TXT is only preferable for short documents like
installation and release notes and legal documents. Usually TXT documentation is
distributed with simple and relatively small applications, like PDA programs or
games. You may create a TXT file in any text editor.
Evaluate how your software can be distributed and how people will use it. Do
they need a context help file in the application or will they print out the
entire help file and keep the manual on their desk? How often will you update
the help file? Is it relatively easy to distribute together with your program
files or is it better to store it on the website? Answering these questions will
help you decide which format is best.
Often the combination of approaches will work best. You may keep the HTML
manual on your website for reference and it may attract people from search
engines, distribute the CHM file with the application for context sensitive
help, and upload the printable version of the help file in PDF or RTF\DOC format
on the public website for those who may want to print out the entire document as
About the Author
Dennis Crane, the author of Dr.Explain, specializes in help authoring
software development. He is online at
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-08-27 23:36:10 in Computer Articles