These days, most of our work uses XML and/or DITA as foundational technologies. As a result, our interest in help authoring tools such as Flare and RoboHelp has been muted. However, with the release of Flare 5, MadCap has added support for DITA. This review looks at the DITA features in the new product. (If you’re looking for a discussion of all the new features, I suggest you wander over to Paul Pehrson’s review. You might also read the official MadCap press release.)
The initial coverage reminds me a bit of this:
(My web site stats prove that you people are suckers for video. Also, I highly recommend TubeChop for extracting a portion of a YouTube video.)
Let’s take a look at the most important Flare/DITA integration pieces.
New output possibilities
After importing DITA content into Flare, you can publish to any of the output formats that Flare supports. Most important, in my opinion, is the option to publish cross-browser, cross-platform HTML-based help (“web help”) because the DITA Open Toolkit does not provide this output. We have created web help systems by customizing the Open Toolkit output, and that approach does make sense in certain situations, but the option to publish through Flare is appealing for several reasons:
- Flare provides a default template for web help output (actually, three of them: WebHelp, WebHelp Plus, and WebHelp AIR)
- Customizing Flare output is easier than configuring the Open Toolkit
I took some DITA files, opened them in Flare, made some minimal formatting changes, and published to WebHelp. The result is shown here:
Not bad at all for 10 minutes’ work. I added the owl logo and scriptorium.com in the header, changed the default font to sans-serif, and made the heading purple. Tweaking CSS in Flare’s visual editor is straightforward, and changes automatically cascade (sorry) across all the project files.
Ease of configuration
Flare wins. Next topic. (Don’t believe me? Read the DITA Open Toolkit User Guide — actually, just skim the table of contents.)
The Open Toolkit wins on volume and for right-to-left languages; Flare wins on easy configuration (I’m detecting a theme here.)
Out of the box, both Flare and the Open Toolkit provide strings (that is, localized output for interface elements such as the “Table of Contents” label) for simplified and traditional Chinese, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portugese, Spanish, Swedish, and Thai (I have omitted variations such as Canadian French).
Beyond that, we have the following:
- Right-to-left language support: Only in the Open Toolkit
- Language strings provided by the Open Toolkit but not by Flare: Arabic, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Czech, Greek, Estonian, Hebrew, Croatian, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian, Turkish, and Ukrainian
- Ease of adding support for a new language: Flare wins. In the Open Toolkit, you modify an XML file; in Flare, you use the Language Skin Editor (although it looks as though you could choose to modify the resource file directory directly if you really wanted to)
Thus, if you need Hebrew or Arabic publishing, you can’t use Flare. The Open Toolkit also provides default support for more languages.
I imported a map file into Flare and published. Then, I changed the map file to include a simple nested ditamap. Here is what I found:
- Flare recognized the map file and the nested map file and built TOC files in Flare with the correct relationships.
- Inexplicably, the nested map file was designated the primary TOC. I speculate that this might be because the nested map file was first in alphabetical order. I changed the parent map file to be the primary TOC to fix this. I don’t know what would happen for a more complex set of maps, but I am concerned.
- Flare inserted an extra layer into the output TOC where the nested map is found.
- The titles generated in the TOC are different in Flare than they are through the DITA Open Toolkit (see below).
I generated the output for my map file (the nested map is the “The decision to implement” section in this screen shot) through the DITA Open Toolkit and got the following XHTML output:
Then, I imported the same map file into Flare, generated WebHelp, and got the following TOC output:
- The TOC text is different (!!). The DITA Open Toolkit uses the text of the topic titles from inside the topic files. Flare uses the text of the @navtitle attribute in the map file. My topic titles and @navtitles don’t match because I created the map file, then changed a bunch of topic titles. The map file didn’t keep up with the new titles (because it doesn’t matter in the Open Toolkit), but it appears to matter for Flare. The entry in the map file for the first item is:
<topicref href="introduction.xml" navtitle="Introduction" type="topic">Flare picks up the “Introduction” from the navtitle attribute.
Inside the file, you find:
<title>Executive summary</title>The Open Toolkit uses the content of the title element from inside the file.
- The Implementation section has added an extra layer in the Flare output. It appears that nesting a map file results in an extra level of hierarchy.
The inconsistency between the two implementations is annoying.
In part 2 of this review (coming soon), I’ll look at cross-references, reltables, conrefs, specialization, and conditional processing.