AODC – Adobe AIR Help

This week I’m attending the Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference (AODC) on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. At today’s first session, Tony Self introduced us to AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) and two prototype AIR Help applications.

Tony is a founding partner of HyperWrite. His sessions are always amusing and information-packed. This one was no exception.

AIR

First, Tony introduced AIR itself. The acronym stands for “Adobe Integrated Runtime” and is produced by, you guessed it, Adobe.

In brief, here’s what happens:

  • As an author/developer, you will create an AIR application.
  • You will send the application to your users — it’s just a single file (extension .air).
  • Your users will install the AIR platform first, then install your application.

Since Adobe has such a wide following and presence, it’s thought that the AIR platform will soon be as prevalent as Flash, i.e. approximately 97% of computers will have AIR installed.

Here are some of the things AIR does for you:

  • You can create a rich desktop application, including graphics, HTML, AJAX, Flex and Flash.
  • An AIR application can be installed and run on any operating system. Well, in principle anyway.
  • Your application can include content from local and remote sources. Tony mentioned a good use case here: Your application could fetch the online documentation from the server if your user is online, otherwise it could default to the local copy of the documentation.

Two AIR Help applications

Next, Tony gave us an demonstration of two uses of AIR to produce online help systems:

  • Scott Prentice’s prototype AIR Help application
  • Adobe’s pre-release AIR support for RoboHelp 7

Scott Prentice’s prototype AIR Help application

Scott Prentice has created a prototype AIR Help application, using a DITA document as a test case (the DITA language reference). Scott’s application allows you to view the DITA document in a rich desktop viewer. The navigation panels include two different tables of content, an index and a search.

Adobe’s pre-release AIR support for RoboHelp 7

Adobe is building AIR support into RoboHelp 7. Currently, this is available as the pre-release RoboHelp Packager for Adobe AIR. The packager is free, and likely to remain so. It is also open source. It will probably become another output option in the RoboHelp UI.

To use the packager now — assuming you have RoboHelp installed:

  • Download and install the AIR platform.
  • Download and install the RoboHelp Packager for Adobe AIR.
  • Generate your WebHelp output from RoboHelp as usual.
  • Then run the packager, giving the location of your WebHelp files as input.
  • You will need a digital certificate. When you distribute your application, your users will use the certificate to verify the source of the executable file. For testing purposes, the packager leads you through the process of generating a certificate on your own machine. When you eventually distribute your AIR application, you’ll need a certificate from a recognised authority.
  • You can set various look-and-feel options, such as number of tabs, skins, branding. The number of available options will probably increase when the product is more mature.
  • You can configure your application to allow your users to add comments. Wow, Web 2.0 :) (More below.)
  • You can also configure it to update the local AIR Help file periodically from the server.
  • Click the “Generate” button — the packager will produce a file with the .air extension. This is the file you will distribute to your users.
  • Your help application supports context-sensitive help.
  • You can also bundle the help application with the product (application) it is documenting.

Now put on your other hat and become a user of your help system. Double-click the generated xxx.air file to install it.

  • You should see the content of your help file in the AIR Help viewer. It will look very similar to the RoboHelp WebHelp output. After all, it’s the same HTML.
  • It includes a search facility, which also shows a summary of the contents of the pages in the search results.
  • There’s also an index.
  • It allows users to add “Favourites” — this is difficult to do in straight HTML-based help.
  • The “How do I” facility is similar to RoboHelp’s Browse Sequences.
  • There’s a sophisticated zoom utility to increase text size.

A bit more about the comments in the Adobe AIR Help

When you use the Adobe packager to create an AIR Help file, you can configure your application to allow your users to add comments.

A user can then add comments to the help topics. By default, the comments are stored on the user’s local machine. Each user can see a list of and review their own comments. They can also choose to synchronise their comments with the server. Then their comments are visible to other users, and they can see other users’ comments.

Tony mentioned that this is a bit of a trend in online help software, for example MadCap Flare can now run with the MadCap Feedback Server, which collects comments as well as information about how the users are using the system. This is useful, for example, to diagnose troublespots in the help system and the application it is documenting.

My conclusions

Tony‘s session was very interesting to me, because I’ve produced various help systems such as WinHelp, HTML Help and straight HTML files, using RoboHelp, Help & Manual, HDK and others lost in the mists of time :) From the little bit I’ve seen today, AIR Help is one to keep an eye on. It’s not a leap into the future, but it has some useful advantages over CHM files and vanilla HTML.

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About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 15 May 2008, in AODC, online help, open standards, technical writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Great write-up! AIR sounds particularly useful as as a documentation vehicle for native applications delivered on several platforms.

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