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Deprecating WinHelp

Thanks for all the feedback (and keep it coming)! Yes, we'll think long and hard before doing anything (as we already are/have), and yes, there is a big cost to keeping WinHelp on life support. This is not something we take lightly or do on a whim (if it was, WinHelp would have been oh so gone a long time ago). We know that application compatibility is important.

Oh, before continuing, I should point out that today's post contains the unadulterated opinions of ShaneMc. The views expressed are entirely his and are not necessarily those of Microsoft, the AP Team, or our sponsors.

For fun [hey, it's raining; what else 're we gonna do?], let's look at the definition of "deprecate" from the Encarta dictionary (http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_/deprecate.html):

dep·re·cate [ dépprə kàyt ] (past dep·re·cat·ed, past participle dep·re·cat·ed, present participle dep·re·cat·ing, 3rd person present singular dep·re·cates)

transitive verb  deplore: to express condemnation of something or somebody
[Early 17th century. From Latin deprecari , literally “to pray against,” from precari  (see pray).]

The literal Latin translation of deprecari is probably closest to my own personal feelings about WinHelp. :-) [remember this is ShaneMc's opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of other AP representatives or Microsoft].

But the common use of this term in our industry is more as a warning of something that is going to go away sometime so you should stop using it. WinHelp falls into this category. When will it go away, you ask? I can't tell you at this time (simply because I don't know); all I can do is continue to warn you (as I have for a number of years) that it will go away. And beg you, please, to stop using it. It's possible that it will go away sooner rather than later--the increasing importance of Security may put a stake through its heart. Localization issues have driven WinHelp out of Microsoft products, even for popups. Usability and discoverability problems have led us away from What's This? help and toward a more task-oriented model. When the next version of Windows ships, there will be no .HLP files present on the CD. Nor will there be any What's This? help (even using HTML Help). The What's This? handler will still be there, but Windows won't be using it.

I totally get the argument for application compatibility and legacy WinHelp, and it's probably unlikely that WinHelp will be removed from Windows codename Longhorn. But really, I'm begging you: please don't create new WinHelp content and apps that use it. You're painting yourself into a corner if you continue to do so. I'm hereby personally deprecating WinHelp, both in the dictionary meaning above and in the common industry meaning. [Note that I have no responsibility in deciding whether WinHelp will actually be removed from Windows; I'm just a voice crying out in the wilderness]. The end of the WinHelp world is coming--we just don't know when yet.

Published Friday, May 20, 2005 4:48 PM by apblog

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Friday, May 20, 2005 6:24 PM by PatriotB

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

It's kind of funny to take a look the history of dialog box help. Prior to Windows 95, you would have regular "Help" buttons on dialog boxes that would open the regular help file to a page about the dialog box.

Then in Windows 95, you got the "?" button and What's This that let you get help on a specific control. "Help" buttons largely went away.

Now, take a look at what Office 2003 is doing. Clicking the "?" button doesn't bring up the What's This cursor, but opens up a separate help pane (resizing your window in the process). You have to search through the help pane for the information you need. For example, the Outlook Options dialog box has 7 tabs, each tab has "sections" and each sections has controls. In order to find one of these controls, you need find the tab you're interested in, expand it in the help pane, then expand the section, then look through the list of controls to find the one you want.

I consider this method of help to be a step backwards... If the control is right in front of me I shouldn't have to search around in a help pane in order to find help on that control.

So when you say that Longhorn won't be using What's This, even the HTML Help version, it concerns me. I hope you aren't taking the Office route.

(Of course this is just my opinion as a power user. Maybe usability studies support using the "new" method for novice/average users.)
Friday, May 20, 2005 6:25 PM by Ken Cox [MVP]

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

The one advantage of WinHelp was the ability to "Keep Help on Top". It was easy to park a procedure in an unused part of the screen and keep it there.

HTML Help has some advantages, but it is really annoying to lose the user assistance window while trying to follow the instructions. Alt-tabbing to find it again is not a great workaround.

I hope this can be fixed in the next OS. The OS should support marking *any* window as "always on top".

Friday, May 20, 2005 6:55 PM by apblog

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

Yes, one of my concerns is that we should be moving forward, not backward (or sideways). If all we do is make topics that are lists of controls, then I agree we'll have moved back. This should probably be a topic for a future post, but for now I'll give the short version.

Most What's This? help (not all) was little more than what can be done in tooltips, which users discover much more often, and by the way, which are much easier to create.

Instead of a Help button, we'll use links (with meaningful text). Users get that links take them to more info; it's a simple paradigm that they are used to.

The Help you get in the pane (or whatever viewer) should be more task-focused and less control-focused. Yes, there are may still times when it makes sense to have a list of controls, but at least some of those cases can be eliminated by more task-focused UI.
Saturday, May 21, 2005 4:00 AM by ukulle

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

By the support of a German help newsgroup (and microsoft.public.helpauthoring too) it is known to me that WinHelp is used more than we think. Technical authors don't have the time or resources to convert Winhelp to HTMLHelp or MAML.

I attach always following note already for some time: "Take into account that HTMLHelp 1.x is the recommended help system and an extensive change arises with Longhorn (MAML). WinHelp has been very good but goes out of date!" The Help MVP's have to support four systems (WinHelp, HTMLHelp 1.x, Help2, Help3), after Longhorn is released! Please excuse -- I hope nobody dies with good WinHelp knowledge in the meantime!

Many users of older programs and technical authors will yell if WinHelp is abolished. On the other hand cleaning up a new operating system (Longhorn) is necessarily, there one otherwise old API's are inherited to the .NET Framework.

I think WinHelp Viewer and API probably cannot be separated. A new stand-alone WinHelp viewer (to support old .HLP files only from the users view) isn't expected since it means too much effort.

I therefore tend towards the following opinion:
Keep the WinHelp bits!
Monday, May 23, 2005 11:02 AM by Dave

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

Combined, winhelp.exe and winhelp32.exe are only half a meg in size. Looking at the size of hard drives these days, I don't understand why anyone wants to remove either of them from the system. It's not like they're in the way. And WinHelp is the only Help system so far that's actually been completed. HH still has holes (i.e., Info Types, searching via the API, etc.)
Monday, May 23, 2005 5:52 PM by Chuck Martin

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

I'd like to know what "usability and discoverability problems" led away from What's This? help. If the "solution" is what's in the current version of Office, then I think we're in a world o' hurt.

Field-level help *can't* be task oriented because fields (and dialog boxes and pages and any UI items) are more often than not used in any number of user tasks. Field-level help doens't fit into the task-oriented model.

Field-level user assistance needs to provide users with information about the consequences of any choice they may make (or any information they may enter) in that particular field. That's typically more (and more complex) that most tooltips (and even balloon tips) can handle.

In my own experience, I find in Office thatinstead of getting field-level help in 2 clicks (with the second click giving almost instantaneous results), my second click results in a resizing of my applicaiton window, an opening of a second help window, and a page full of link headings, requiring one or more clicks and some scrollling and searching to find help on the particular field I need information about. I'm definitely skeptical about how this process is more usable than What's This? help. It's certainly more labor intensive.

While I've never been fully convinced of the Microsoft reasoning why HTML Help *had* to replace WinHelp (especially now that we know that IE security updates have broken HTML Help systems, for just one reason), I'd agree with Shane that user assistance developers shouldn't be creating WinHelp systems for their primary content. But until Microsoft develops a equivalent technology to the What's This? help functionality, I don't see WinHelp being left out of the user assistance universe.
Tuesday, June 07, 2005 10:17 PM by Nick

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

Winhelp rocked because:
1. you could have "rich" popups.
2. There was a history of topics you'd navigated in a drop-down box. Given that everything is in a tree structure, you could go up and down the tree, OR use the browse sequence. It gave you lots of control over where you were going.
3. You could annotate help topics. This is invaluable when you find, as is sometimes the case, that you find something that isn't in the helpfile and you want to remind yourself of it later.

Winhelp WAS painful, though, in how you could see the table of contents, or the content, but rarely (ie without 3rd party tools) both at the same time.
Monday, August 22, 2005 11:10 AM by Paul Hanson

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

The major advantage I will miss when I no longer work with WinHelp is the ability to use MS-DOS batch files. I use one to compile my 100 projects, then copy all the .hlp and .cnt files to 1 specific directory, then copy all the .pdf files I distribute to that same specific directory, then, to copy all the .hlp, .cnt, and .pdf files to 4 other directories that I keep updated. AFAIK, you cannot do the batch compile process with web-based Help as easily as writing:
That's what I will miss: its union with DOS commands...

Wednesday, November 30, 2005 4:15 PM by dale newsom

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

Dear Microsoft.

_All the people_ who have commented on this post seem to think moving away from the WinHelp/What's This-paradigm of help systems is a mistake. Nobody seems to like the new Office help system. Why aren't you listening to your users?

_All the people_ on Jenson Harris' blogs seem to feel the same: http://blogs.msdn.com/jensenh/archive/2005/11/29/497861.aspx
Thursday, March 23, 2006 1:16 AM by Tim

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

So we now have an announcement that Winhelp is on the way out.  At the same time, the latest Vista community preview breaks Winhelp over a network even more catastrophically than the security update that knifed HTMLHelp last year: it seems that attempting to call winhelp from an application run remotely hangs both app and network connection.

Having spent quite a while last year converting (as the least worst option at the time) HTML help back to winhelp, I don't feel too enthusiastic about embracing whatever new assistance technology comes out of MS.
Friday, April 14, 2006 8:17 AM by Simon L Smith

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

I just read that at a very recent technical writers convention, Microsoft made the announcement that there will be no WinHelp in Vista and no downloadable version of WinHelp either. I personally find this hard to believe. There are still many applications that use WinHelp. I can't believe Microsoft could get away with releasing a new version of Windows that couldn't display .hlp files. I just bought the latest version of a software package from National Geographic and found that it uses WinHelp with the RoboHelp 2000 extentions. I find it hard to believe that Microsoft is going to break compatibility so badly in Vista. So, when an application calls the WinHelp API the app simply gets a fail code? Perhaps Vista is going to do some special, behind-the-scenes, on-the-fly conversion to a chm file and then remap calls from the WinHelp API to the HTMLHelp API?
Saturday, May 06, 2006 1:23 PM by Dan

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

I don't have a problem so much with MS deciding not to support WinHelp in VISTA as I do with their waiting this long to officially announce it. First it was "Longhorn" and statements that WinHelp would still be compatible, then hints that you shouldn't develop new help WinHelp systems, then suggestions that while it might not be supported in the default release that there would be a downloadable component available to support WinHelp. This waffling and lack of any real decision until now has no doubt left thousands (maybe tens of thousands)of developers either unaware or totally unprepared to convert their help systems. Conversion of a WinHelp system to HTML help is fraught with issues and necessary cleanup work and not something that can be successfully implemented in a few months by most software companies.
Tuesday, May 09, 2006 6:43 AM by Tim

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

Dan.  As with so much to do with Vista, there's a real sense of drift here.  I'm really thinking about a non-MS approach for my help files now, perhaps keeping WinHelp for pre Vista customers and using something like Opera Widgets for Vista customers.  Or just keep all help stuff in the application (happily my needs are pretty straightforward).

Looking at the broader picture, this is exactly the kind of behaviour that encourages people to drift away from MS to open source and standards based development.
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Wednesday, June 07, 2006 6:27 PM by cbramble

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

I think everyone needs to read the .NET Framework and the Vista UX Guidelines. You'll see that you have more opportunities to provide a better experience -- and more, not less help (which means more work for you!) -- for your audience.

Which means you get to keep your job.

So quit whining and get to work, wimps.
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# I like it

Thanks for all the feedback (and keep it coming)! Yes, we'll think long and hard before doing anything (as we already are/have), and yes, there is a big cost to keeping WinHelp on life support. This is not something we take lightly or do on a whim (if it was, WinHelp would have been oh so gone a long time ago). We know that application compatibility is important.

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# re: Deprecating WinHelp

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Monday, March 05, 2007 10:32 AM by Rob

# re: Deprecating WinHelp

Well, the demise of WinHelp sure has torn a few holes in Vista - for instance, most Control Panel applets that were using the "What's this" help don't seem to have any kind of help anymore - no "What's this", no Help Button, they dn't even react to the F1 key. Great work, guys...

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