Today MadCap Software released version 8 of its flagship help authoring tool, MadCap Flare, and I think there is a whole lot to like about it. I was lucky enough to be a beta tester for Flare v8, and I’m excited to share with you some of the great new features you’ll find in v8. Click the link or scroll down to read about each of these features.
- New User Interface
- Contributor Free review mode
- Subfolders in Project Organizer
- HTML5 Output
- PDF and Print Output improvements
- e-Pub Output
- Import enhancements for DITA, Word, and Framemaker
- DITA 1.2 support
- Improvements to Conditions/Variables
- New licensing model
New User Interface
The first thing you’ll notice when you open Flare v8 is that the interface has been completely re-designed. By default, Flare 8 has a new ribbon-based layout. While there are some who have lamented this change in Microsoft’s line of products, I actually have liked the ribbon since it was introduced. It makes a lot of options easier to find, and reduces the number of clicks I have to make. I have loved using the ribbon interface in Flare 8. It makes me faster at doing common things like accessing document properties, using find-and-replace, creating a snippet, etc.
I do know that there are “ribbon haters” out there, and if you are one of them, you can change a setting in Flare to retain the old UI. To do that, click on the File tab, then click the Options button (see graphic, right). There you can select either the Ribbon menu style, or the Tool Strip menu style. You can also change the active theme (Black, Classic, or Silver). I quite like the Black theme, with Silver being my second choice.
Contributor Free review mode
This feature is HUGE for me. When Flare 7 was released, MadCap retired the X-Edit line of tools and released a new tool called Contributor which replaced the three versions of X-Edit. Contributor is a great tool, but when it was released, there was only one version, and it was a paid version. That meant I needed to purchase a license of Contributor for EVERY person who would be reviewing content from my project, no matter how large or small their contribution. Our management wasn’t willing to shell out the money for Contributor licenses for all our reviewers, so we were in a bind. No more.
With Flare 8, Contributor has a new release that has a free-review mode. When you open Contributor, you can either enter a license key, or you can use it in “review” mode. SMEs and managers can provide annotated comments to the document they are reviewing. The review mode never expires, so the reviewers will never need to purchase a copy of Contributor. If they DO purchase a Contributor license, they can make changes (with a track-changes-like functionality) to the document during the review.
Contributor can also cost the organization a lot less money now, with some of the new licensing options, which are described in a later section of this review.
Sub-folders in Project Organizer
This may seem like a trivial option, but I’m really excited about Flare 8’s ability to have sub-folders in the Project Organizer. At a previous company, I was documenting four related products in the same Flare project. I had several different TOCs, and each product had several different targets. One product had its own set of variables that was distinct from the other variables in the other product lines. I had a variety of reports, and the reports were different for each product line. Needless to say, the Project Organizer seemed anything but “organized.”
Flare 8 lets you add sub-folders in each of the Project Organizer folders. In my example, I could have created a sub-folder for each of my product lines so I could organize my TOCs, Reports, Targets, etc. by product line. For those of you working with large products with “messy” Project Organizer folders, this is a great feature. Like I said, it may be a small thing, but it is an example of MadCap working to make its existing workflow easier and more efficient for the doc team who is creating content using Flare.
This beautiful feature is worth the price of the upgrade to me alone. Flare 8 supports a new HTML5-based webhelp output. HTML5 output kicks the traditional 3-pane webhelp output to the curb giving you an almost unlimited number of possibilities for styling your output.
The first image, left, shows you what the default HTML5 output looks like from Flare 8. You’ll see that it is a very modern design that hints at the 3-pane help of lesser tools (grin), but is clean and fresh. Everything is on a single HTML page, including the list of topics (in a styled, un-ordered list), the search field, and the search results field. The actual topic content is loaded in an i-frame, so that all the content on the page (the list of topics, etc.) doesn’t have to be re-downloaded every time you switch topics.
Do you dream of a WebHelp output that has a drop-down menu-style navigation? Now you can have it. Just do CSS magic to style the list into a menu, and you’re done.
Search results are different in HTML5 output as well (see graphic, right). Now search results are shown in a DIV in the main content window. The results are more “Google-like” and show the topic title and content in the topic that relates to the link, so this is a big win for usability in my opinion.
As always, you can remove the MadCap logo by changing a setting in the Skin Editor. Speaking of the Skin editor, when you open your existing Flare project in Flare 8, you will need to do a couple of things before you generate your first HTML5 output.
First, you need to create an HTML5 skin. In the Project Organizer, right-click on Skins, and select “Add Skin…”. Be sure to base your new skin on either the DefaultHTML5 skin or the LightHTML5 skin. (My first example in this section is the “default” skin; my second example in this section is the “light” skin.) Give your skin a descriptive name, then click Add. Allow Flare to copy the skin to your project (by clicking OK). The skin editor opens with the new skin settings. Make any changes you want, then save the skin.
Next, you need to create a target that uses the HTML5 skin. In the Project Organizer, right-click on Targets, and select “Add Target…”. Be sure to select the HTML5 output type, and give your target a descriptive name, then click Add. Allow Flare to copy the skin to your project (by clicking OK). The target editor opens with the new target settings. On the General tab, make sure your new HTML5 skin is selected in the Skin drop-down list. Make any other changes you want to the target, and save it.
Going through this process will help you not get errors when you try to generate output. (Because, for example, if you were to take an existing target and just switch the output type to HTML5, you would get an error when you tried to build the target, because Flare 8 can’t find an HTML5 skin.)
HTML5 skins are my favorite new feature in Flare 8. This is a game-changing feature, because now that your output is broken out of the 3-pane frame set, you can do just about anything you want to style your content.
PDF and Print Output improvements
If you generate PDF or other print outputs, you are going to see some enhancements that you are going to like. These enhancements make Flare’s output look more professional, and give you added control over what happens in your documents. Since you can’t edit the output when you generate directly to PDF (and you shouldn’t have to… that’s the point of going directly to PDF), these small enhancements can make a powerful difference in your PDF output. For example Flare 8 includes the following print output enhancements:
- Named Destinations for PDF Output. This means you don’t have to do any linking in Acrobat after you generate your output.
- Page Layout breaks independent from chapter breaks. Insert a hard page break wherever you need.
- Repeated table captions. If your table breaks onto two pages, the caption will appear on both tables. You can even add an indicator that says the table continues on the next page.
- More options for setting the initial view of PDF output (like you can currently do in Acrobat).
- Suppress page numbers for specific levels in TOCs and Mini-TOCs. If you want to include H3s in your TOC or Mini-TOC, you don’t necessarily have to give their page numbers.
- Collapse top margin when element appears at the top of a printed page. You set this option in the print target editor, on the advanced tab.
- Improved multi-line support for index entries and TOC entries. If the title of a topic (or index entry) requires two lines, you now have options to edit the indent when the line wraps.
- Better customization of leader characters including spacing, padding, etc.
- Crisper table borders in PDF output.
- New “Sort As” feature for index entries. This feature allows you to enter a term, but have it sort in another location in the index. For example, suppose your product name starts with a number (123Acme Solution). You could set an index entry to sort that by number (appearing at the beginning of the index), by the word “one”, or by the word “Acme”, depending on your needs. This feature helps some non-English languages, as well that have different sorting requirements based on the use of different character sets.
These features work together to provide great PDF output without any tweaking of the generated output.
Flare 8 has another new output type: e-Pub. This new output format gives you the ability to publish content for a variety of mobile devices and platforms. This makes it easy to publish your help system in a format that can be read on mobile phones, tablet computers, and other e-Book readers. For more info on the e-Pub platform in general, this Wikipedia article is helpful.
I haven’t tested this feature thoroughly yet, but I’ve heard some great things from other beta testers. I’m excited to hear from other Flare 8 users how they’ve been able to use this as a publishing platform for their content.
Import enhancements for DITA, Word, and Framemaker
In Flare 8 it is much easier to import content. In earlier versions, each time you wanted to import content, you had to first add an import file to the project organizer, then edit the import file. Now the wizard does that work behind the scenes making importing content more intuitive.
Several behind-the-scenes enhancements makes the import process faster and better. I tested this by importing 176 Word documents in a single import. The import was relatively fast (compared to another tool where I imported the same 176 topics), and the imported topics were clean with correct style mappings. I was impressed with how easy it was to import these topics.
Of course the import process into any HAT is dependent on how clean the source files are. My 176 topics were created by around 30 different authors who created the content in a Word document that had locked the styles so you couldn’t do any local formatting. All styling was done by selecting a pre-defined Word style, which is why the importing process for me was so clean.
DITA 1.2 support
Flare 8 imports and exports DITA 2.1. Flare 7, in contrast, was only able to work with DITA 1.1 content. I haven’t done a lot of work with DITA, so this feature isn’t a huge WOW for me, but I know it will matter to a lot of people who do use DITA either for source files or for some type of output.
Improvements to Conditions/Variables
In earlier versions of Flare, you had to be careful not to change the names of conditions or variables, because when you did so, the associations were broken (so the conditions or variables you’d already added to your project would stop working). In Flare 8, you can modify condition and variable names without worrying about breaking the associations. Flare will check the existing topics for instances of the old variables and conditions, and will update them to the new name.
Again, this is a small enhancement, but one that will make things much easier for technical authors.
New licensing model
A huge shift with Flare 8 is a new licensing model. The traditional, single-user license will continue to be available, but now there are a few more options for those who are purchasing multiple licenses. The other licenses are:
This license is available for Flare, Contributor, Analyzer, and Capture. With a multi-user perpetual license, you purchase the number of licenses you want to be able to use at any given time, then you install Flare on that number of computers. If one user doesn’t need to use Flare for a time, they can easily deactivate their license of Flare, which makes it available for somebody else in the organization.This license costs the same as a normal single-user license, and you purchase as many licenses as you need. The benefit here is that there is only a single license key for the whole organization, and you can move the software from one computer to another without contacting Support or registering the software for each user.
Like a normal single-user license, you can either purchase Maintenance or not, and the prices for maintenance are the same. If you don’t purchase maintenance, you don’t get free upgrades, but you can use your license for Flare 8 in perpetuity (i.e. there is no annual renewal fee to keep using Flare 8). An advantage to this license is that Flare only needs to “phone home” when you activate or deactivate a license, (and there is no registration) so you can use Flare when you aren’t connected to the Internet. With a single key for multiple machines, the management and installation is simple.
This license is available for Flare, Contributor, Analyzer, and Capture. You can have Flare installed on any number of computers, but your license your site for a specific number of concurrent users. Each time a user opens Flare, the software “phones home” to see if the organization has a concurrent license available. If they do, they can work in the product. If they don’t, they cant.
The obvious advantage to this type of license is that you only need to purchase licenses for the number of expected concurrent users, not the actual number of installations of Flare. If all your Flare users spend most of their time in Flare, this license doesn’t provide you much of an advantage, but if you have some occasional Flare users, this option saves you some money, because several occasional authors share a floating license that they each use only when they need it. In addition, you can be assured that all your users are using the same (and most current) version of Flare (with support). The obvious disadvantage of this type of license is that you have to have an active Internet connection to use Flare (since Flare continually checks to ensure you aren’t exceeding your number of paid licenses).
Per license, this license costs about the same as a single-user Flare license plus Platinum maintenance, as the Enterprise license includes access to the highest level of support and upgrades for all your users. After one year, you continue paying for maintenance to continue having access to use Flare. Because you are a Maintenance customer, all upgrades to Flare are included in your Maintenance plan.
This license is currently available only for Contributor. You purchase either a 6-month or 12-month license term, and you can purchase a single license, a multi-user license, or a floating subscription license. With the Floating Subscription License, for example, you can install Contributor on as many computers as you want in the organization. Each time somebody opens Contributor, the software “phones home” to see how many licenses are currently in use. If fewer than the total subscriptions you purchased are being used, you can open and use Contributor.
For example, let’s say I have 20 SMEs that need to be able to use Contributor to author content for a Flare project. I think that only 10 of them will need to be using the tool at any given time. I install Contributor on all 20 machines, but I only purchase 10 subscriptions. When nine people are using Contributor at any given moment, if I open Contributor, I can be the tenth user, and Contributor opens normally. Once I’m running Contributor, I’m using the tenth license, so if another SME opens Contributor, they are told that all the licenses are in use, and they need to wait until a license is available.
This is a great feature, because honestly, most SMEs don’t need access to the help system all the time. You can get fewer licenses than you have SMEs, which saves you money. Contributor subscription licenses range from $8 to $16 per month, depending on how many subscriptions you purchase. This price includes access to technical support and free upgrades that get during released during the period of your subscription.
As usual, you will want to talk to your sales rep to see what pricing deals may be in place at any given time. They can work up a price quote that will take into account promotions that may be in place, as well as discounts your organization may receive based on the number of licenses and products purchased. You can get a general idea of the price from MadCap’s website, but you should check with your sales rep to see what promotions are currently going on.
As you can see, Flare 8 launches an impressive number of new features. I’ve been using Flare 8 for about a month now, and it is still–by far–my favorite authoring tool. (And I know, because for some work projects, I’m required to use a competitor’s tool. So, I have experience with current competing software.)
With version 8, you are able to create stellar output in a variety of formats (including ePub, which I didn’t mention above). Flare 8 makes your product look more professional, and makes it easier for you to get that work done quickly and efficiently.
HTML5 output raises the standard of what WebHelp output can look like and how easy it can be for customers to use. I think MadCap has hit a home run with this release of Flare. Let me know in the comments what features you’re most excited about, and what features you wish had made the cut for this version.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Neal Pozner and Rob Hollinger from MadCap Software for their help in getting me the information I needed for this review.