Adobe recently released Technical Communication Suite 4 (TCS4), the latest version of their integrated collection of technical communications tools.
I am a long-time FrameMaker and RoboHelp user – I used RoboHelp when it was still an independent company called eHelp, and have seen it evolve through several acquisitions, several versions, often retaining some of its most frustrating problems, even after transitioning from eHelp to Macromedia to Adobe.
I stopped using these tools, not because I didn’t like them any more, but because their model no longer conformed to what I needed: structured, modular XML authoring with multiple publishing channels.
This also means that I am no longer the expert I once was on these products, and have have tested some of what is available in TCS4, without (yet) drilling down into its depths.
A Great Leap of Structure
With TCS4, Adobe is finally taking XML, and especially DITA, seriously. You can now use FrameMaker 11’s XML editor just as you can any standalone XML editor, and its features are competitive.
Much of what is new in the XML editor is new to FrameMaker, but has existed for some time in dedicated XML editors. The FrameMaker version, however, dresses it up in nice, new clothes and makes it feel a lot less geeky. This is important for many users, for whom XML can present a significant technical hurdle. Anything that eases their passage is welcome.
In order to help build rich structures, TCS4 also includes Captivate, Illustrator (replacing Photoshop, which is no longer included), and Presenter. These are well integrated with the other tools in the suite.
Where TCS4 really shines is publishing. This should come as no surprise. Adobe has decades of experience at rendering, and they’ve finally brought that to bear on the technical communication side, providing multi-channel publishing options to both traditional formats such as PDF, CHM, or Web Help, and to new formats like EPUB, Kindle Mobi, Mobile Apps, etc.
RoboHelp as Multi-Channel Publishing Engine
Effectively, Adobe has turned RoboHelp 10 into a publishing engine. You can launch a publishing operation from FrameMaker, and it will use RoboHelp’s publishing capabilities without even opening RoboHelp on your screen unless you want to.
The world of software is changing radically, thanks to mobile devices of all sorts. Today, we need to think of a lot more than just pdf and tri-pane help systems. RoboHelp 10 comes with a variety of new, pre-defined screen profiles, layouts and templates for this new multi-channel, “mobile first” world: tablets, smart phones, eBook readers, etc. You can also create your own.
It’s important to note that these profiles are not simple “save as…” functions. The publishing engine is fully rendering links, embedded media, and other rich features natively for each format, following mappings that you specify for each of the output channels you want to produce. You can use RoboHelp’s Single Source Layouts “pod” to tailor these renderings. When you click the “publish” button, TCS4 will render all of the formats you have selected to use in the project.
You can directly integrate Captivate projects and demos into RoboHelp or FrameMaker projects, then publish into SCORM or other formats that are directly managed by Learning Management Systems. For people who straddle the worlds of user assistance and training, this can be a very useful feature, particularly if you reuse content between the two domains.
Who should use it?
I consult with a lot of different types of organizations, and I could never recommend one sole tool set to all my clients. TCS4 seems best suited to large organizations, or to any organization that is already using RoboHelp or FrameMaker (maybe unstructured), and wants to make the move into structured authoring and/or multi-channel publishing. The familiar user interaction model will make moving to structured authoring easier for writers, and there is no fear, in this version, of having anything less than a full featured XML editor available in the familiar FrameMaker environment.
Also, if your organization is already doing structured authoring, but is unhappy with the level of technical expertise needed to tweak your output formats to give you the appearance you need, the publishing power of TCS4 can be more than enough reason to use it.
If you are more comfortable with the traditional chapter and book model for user assistance, but want to publish to multiple channels, TCS4 can also be an excellent fit.
I have no inside information about where Adobe is going with the Technical Communications Suite, but here are a few things I’d like to see in coming editions:
- A lighter weight (and less expensive) FrameMaker product that combines just the XML editor with the powerful publishing engine in RoboHelp – It could be called something like FrameMaker XML Publisher. This should be in addition to, not instead of, the existing product.
- A publishing engine that gives us the flexibility and precision for layout that traditional FrameMaker master pages provide. In other words, a product that maintains the strict separation of structure from display that is XML’s reason for being, but also gives us, in the publishing engine, the same kind of layout control that we have had in desktop publishing models.
- Different versions of the suite – an XML version incorporating the product suggested above, or the option to have one of either Photoshop or Illustrator (different shops have different needs, and these two products don’t have the same audience).
I haven’t, in general, reviewed tools or products in this blog. In this case, Adobe asked me to do it. Specifically, they asked for an independent review – so they must have enough confidence in their product. An independent review means that I must reserve my right to an honest opinion, and that is what you are getting here.