HTML Help in VB.NET

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HTML Help
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RTF documents are so 1980s. When the Internet started sweeping the world with its ability to generate beautifully formatted pages through the common HTML tagbased language, Microsoft decided to upgrade its help system to one that used standard HTML documents: HTML Help. As its name implies, HTML Help is truly HTML-based. Anything that generates HTML can generate HTML Help content: third-party web-page designer tools, word processors, your own custom applications, even Notepad. As expected, some vendors designed tools specifically targeting the HTML Help system. HTML Help is better than WinHelp, due to its dependence on HTML and other related technologies. Each page of your online help file is a separate HTML page/file. Hyperlinks to other help pages are standard HTML hyperlinks. And HTML Help employs most of the features used in any web page, including Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and Java scripting. Compiled HTML Help files have a .chm extension, and a single file includes primary content, the table of contents, and a predefined index of terms. We will use HTML Help technology to add online help content to the Library Project. I ll skip the details of the system until a little later in the chapter.
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Most applications sold as of this writing use HTML Help, but not all. One big exception is Visual Studio itself. Its help system Microsoft Help 2 (a.k.a. HTML Help 2.x) combines HTML and XML content into a set of collections that work together as one. If you ve installed the full version of SQL Server on a system with Visual Studio, they together share a common help interface. You can even search for pages in both collections at the same time.
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Microsoft makes a Help Integration Kit available for developers who wish to merge their own content into the Microsoft Help 2 system. This is most useful for vendors who develop third-party controls and tools that integrate with .NET or SQL Server. Microsoft Help 2 is rarely used for typical end-user software.
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Windows Vista uses a new help system called Assistance Platform (AP). All of the online help that comes with Vista is written using AP, but not much else is. That s because Microsoft decided not to release the file format for other vendors to use. Well, there are a few big companies and OEMs using AP as guided by Microsoft, but you and I are not two of them.
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Not every application uses these Microsoft-defined help systems. Some applications include no online help at all because they are designed by bad people. No, I m just kidding. There may be instances where online help adds no value to a program. But it s usually best to include some sort of written assistance. Standalone HTML pages are just one step down from HTML Help files, and are a viable alternative for simple applications, or those hosted on a web site. You can use other standard formats, such as word processing or text documents, if you just don t have the resources to generate true online help files. And of course there are books, which will get my attention. Visual Studio includes a feature that lets you generate documentation from the XML comments added to each member of your class. (I don t discuss this in this book; see the Visual Studio online help aren t you glad it s there for additional information on XML Comments. ) Don t even consider using this for your own user documentation needs unless you are developing class-based components for use by other developers.
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Designing HTML Help
HTML Help files are built from multiple source files: Content files, especially standard HTML files, communicate core information to the user, either through static text and graphics or through advanced web-pagestyle behaviors and scripts normally available in web pages. The Help Contents file uses .hhc for its file extension. Using standard HTML <ul> and <li> tags, the file specifies the hierarchical table of contents used by the help file.
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