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Productivity Tools and Religious Wars

I used to be a Tech Writer not that long ago and still have many professional and personnel friends who travel in those circles. So, when news hit the web today of the impending demise of Macromedia RoboHelp, it in my inbox pretty quickly. To scale the news up a little bit for relational purposes, imagine the ripple that would emanate throughout web design sphere if Microsoft moonlighted FrontPage. (Oh, what sweet dreams I dream.) FrontPage isn't the de facto tool for web design, but it's pretty popular and has a loyal following.

That's RoboHelp; it's got its quirks (read: huge-ass bugs that will totally screw up your week), but it's got its good points, too. It has also ceased to be very innovative in the past few years. Just before eHelp was acquired by Macromedia, they introduced FlashHelp, which was basically a Flash UI on top of standard web-based Help. Most of the new product innovations and solutions were aimed squarely at...well, that was the problem. They had answers in search of a question, and were starting that "enterprise systems" mantra/death roll.

There are better products that RoboHelp, certainly, but the entry-level tech writer could be relatively effective with it within a week or two, and be pretty proficient after a month. Not a bad ramp-up time considering that some competitors required a base-level understanding of object-oriented single-sourcing to kick out a Help system. (Note to AuthorIT; you have a kick-ass product but you need to lower the entry threshold. Writers != database admins.)

RoboHelp's departure from the market, while surprising, is almost exciting. The void that will be left behind is sizable. I don't have real numbers, but if I had to guess, I wouldn't be surprised if RoboHelp had over 50% of the market share. Now, sunsetting doesn't immediately invalidate all those licenses out there, but it does make support tougher. Many writing companies will move away from RoboHelp. Where they move is the big question.

The major players left standing are FrameMaker with Web Works Publisher, AuthorIT, Doc-To-Help, and Web Works for Word. Honestly, they all have pros and cons, as most tools do. Web Works has the best position because of the number of companies using or going to FrameMaker for single-sourcing. AuthorIT, while great on paper, is a complete philosophical change in process for tech writing houses, and I bet that breaks a lot of deals for them. Web Works for Word is young and, well, works inside of Word. Word doesn't exactly endear itself to many writers.

What will happen? My prediction is that another,single tool will rise and fill the void, instead of the other products gaining marginal market shares. The tool that rises will be one that will support the new scheme of Help development inside of Longhorn Aero and be able to do some cool build tricks with XML (they'll call it single-sourcing, but it will be glorified source-control). Frankly, I think the old RoboHelp team, headed by Mike Hamilton, now at MadCap Software, will get to make the product they should have made before.

And, a note to Mike and his team. You were really, really close with RoboHelp. Honestly. The code generation was a big sticking point; it wasn't critical, but just stop messing with the code. Give writers real tools to do real design: CSS, native XHTML, good layer controls.And clean up that UI; it sucks, and has for years. But, the conditional formatting, the multiple output formats, hell, I even liked the idea of Flash Help. Integrate with existing data management software (I still role my eyes a RoboSource Control) and let companies leverage investments they've already made.

Let writers fiddle and not get punished. Give them round-trip processes. In short, make the tool do what its supposed to do: let writers write, designers design, and everyone publish.

Do that, and you'll be bigger than RoboHelp ever was. If you don't, someone else will.


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