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AP Help - General

The next generation of the Microsoft operating system Windows Vista, formerly codenamed "Longhorn", is released in 2006/2007.

AP Help 1.0 is shipped with Windows Vista (Jan 30 th 2007 was official launch) and includes content for the Help and Support Center. Only Microsoft, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) and corporate users will be able to customize this help content for the operating system and OEM help.

AP Help 2.x is not available yet. Microsoft no longer have immediate plans to release a public version of AP Help. So, Microsoft has not decided if it will be an assistance platform for third-party vendors or another Microsoft-only platform. However there is an AP Help SDK for OEMs which is part of the Business Desktop Deployment 2007 download.

AP Help - Overview

The Windows Vista Help system was designed to greatly improve the user assistance experience in Windows.

However, Microsoft went way beyond just expanding the existing Help platform. Microsoft’s Windows Vista AP Help represents a major change in the development of user-assistance documentation. The result is a task-based Help system which can be integrated within the application’s user interface. However, it is important to start preparing for this change. These changes require to rethink the way you approach user-assistance documentation. It may also require new tools and technologies.

Windows Vista AP Help provides an "Assistance Escalation Path". This path will start with a well-designed user interface, move out from the UI and into the Help pane, then out of the Help pane and into the user community. The last stop will be Microsoft product support. The idea is that users will never encounter a dead end when they seek assistance.

Help for Windows Vista will be provided by the new engine, the Assistance Platform Client 1.0, but it will not be a general purpose Help engine - it will provide Help for Windows Vista only. This version wont be available to help authors. Windows Vista will probably support HTML Help (CHM). WinHelp (HLP) support is not included but a special download will be available in future.

Help authors will use Microsoft Assistance Markup Language (AML, formerly also known as AML), the XML-based markup language to develop Windwos Vista AP Help. So we are closer to single source documentation. AML is akin to the already available DocBook format.

AP Help is highly task-oriented “How to” topics which can appear in other locations. For example, information can appear within the actual user interface or within an FAQ topic.

The method of updating AP Help content is also completely new. Windows Vista AP Help is delivered to the user’s system as a compiled help file which is uncompressed. This allows the author to perform incremental updates of the Help.

Another initiative is known as “Active Content”.

Windwos Vista AP Help also features a Help viewer pane. The help system is supported by a programmatic interface in .NET. Applications. Now it's no longer part of WinFX and under construction.


Semantic vs. Presentation

With HTMLHelp (CHM), the focus was on presentation instead of semantics. With AML the focus will be on semantics. AML gives true separation of content and style. As an author, you will work with a fixed set of topic types, each with a strict set of hierarchical elements, all of which will be formatted by a stylesheet maintained and published by Microsoft.

A small example may help to recognize this efficiency of AML and to use this for the own work.

Layout independence

Today - Emphasis by the representation (bold, italic):
Click to "Print", if ..

AP Help AML - Markup:
<para>Click to <ui>Print</ui>, if ..</para>

HTML problem

Is this a headline?

<font size="3"><strong><em>Frequently Asked Questions</em></strong></font>

AP Help AML:

  <title>Frequently Asked Questions</title>

This allows the author to concentrate on content and not worry about presentation. It also ensures consistency in structure and presentation within Help.


Active Content

"Active Content" provides AP Help with some additional features:

  1. Shortcuts - similar to HH 1.x shortcuts, where ShellExecute() is used to run an external program,
  2. Expanding sections - expanding and contracting sections, just like we have HTML Help currently. This allows you to create high-level topics that provide additional information on demand. Instead of the current method of using JavaScript, an author will use a simple element tag. The code used to implement the expanding and collapsing effect is added at viewing time,
  3. Guided Help Topics - früher mit Active Content Wizard (ACW) bezeichnet - are similar to the current Training Card Help in WinHelp and HTMLHelp 1.x. The wizard can be used to interactively guide the user through a task or automatically complete the task for them.

The following screenshots show screens from Pre Alpha version (Build 4051) and Release (Build 6000) of Windows Vista.

Build 4051
Build 6000


Conditional Markup

Conditional markup combined with the ability to detect the current user or machine state means we can display only that assistance that is appropriate to the user's current environment.

This allows the author to display and hide content based on a user’s current state. For example, two different set of steps may exist for a given task. The set of steps that appears depend on certain conditions being present.


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