First Looks

MadCap Flare 3.0: Author XML-Based Help

Get help with your help.

MadCap Flare 3.0 is a professional development environment that helps information developers create online Help in multiple formats from a single source. The single source format is industry standard XML rather than rich text format (RTF) or HTML used by what the vendor calls "legacy" tools.

Here's some the back story on Flare: A few years ago, there were rumors that RoboHelp, a leading authoring package adopted as the standard in many corporations, was on its last legs. The story went that Adobe wasn't interested in that part of its Macromedia acquisition. Several former Macromedia people started MadCap Software, aiming to capture some of RoboHelp's market and mind share.

As a next-generation tool, Flare is built on Microsoft's .NET 2.0 Framework and uses XML for all of its internal and external needs rather than a proprietary format. No matter what the format, a basic requirement for any Help authoring tool is a decent WYSIWYG word processor for writing content. Flare's XML editor has a Word-like toolbar and corresponding Format menu that readily handles common chores such as applying styles, colors, heading levels, and formats including numbered steps and bullets. That said, you know you're in an XML editor when you toggle the button to go into Tag view. Tag view threw me at first because it isn't a source code editor as you might expect. There's odd-looking "pseudo" markup with appended plus signs such as . I finally realized these are read-only glyphs that you toggle to show or hide their embedded text. To edit the real tags, open the file in the program of your choice (such as Notepad) by right-clicking on the filename in the Content Explorer.

Figure 1
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. An Information Developer's IDE.
Flare 3.0 creates XML-based content for single-source online Help projects. The IDE, designed for technical writers, includes an XML editor, wizards for importing content, and tools to build multiple targets.

Flare supports a good range of targets, including CHM files, cross-browser HTML, Word, PDF, FrameMaker, and MadCap's own DotNet Help viewer. I was disappointed not to find the MSHelp2.x format to build fully integrated help for Visual Studio's Document Explorer (dexplore.exe) engine. You set a primary target for a project and Flare compiles the file with a click of the familiar "meat grinder" icon. For the remaining targets, there's easy menu access to kick off a build and view the result.

Flare 3 has good context-sensitive online help, dynamic help, a PDF manual, valuable video tutorials, and simple, effective sample projects. As you might expect, much of the content targets those who are migrating from RoboHelp. The company is active on its peer-to-peer support forums and it's easy to tell that it's attempting to establish a solid community presence.

One unpleasant surprise was the way Flare set off my computer's firewall alarm on its initial startup. I'm not convinced that I should have to open a port to activate and continue using a legally licensed product.

At A Glance:

MadCap Flare 3.0
MadCap Software

Phone: 858-320-0387
Price: $899
Quick Facts: Technical writer's development environment for creating XML-based, single-source online Help. Targets multiple formats including HTML Help, HTML, Word, and FrameMaker.
Pros: WYSIWYG editing of XHTML-like content; good project tools for organizing and building help files; easy to create Tables of Contents; targets several popular formats; good tutorials and user assistance including community forums.
Cons: No built-in support for the integrated Visual Studio Help format; product set off firewall alarm while trying to phone home.

About the Author

Ken Cox is a Canadian .NET programming writer and the author of "ASP.NET 3.5 for Dummies" (Wiley).

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