By Alan Houser

What’s the first thing you notice about Adobe Technical Communication Suite 4?

Adobe Technical Communication Suite 4 LogoIt’s big. It starts with a 7 Gigabyte installer file. That’s to be expected, because TCS4 includes five big, feature-rich applications, plus several smaller applications. Some people make careers out of mastering any one of the five major component applications. If you have a task in technical publishing, it’s very likely that TCS4 will provide the right application, or combination of applications, to complete your task.

TCS4 includes the following major applications:

  • Adobe Acrobat X – Review/approval. Forms. PDF publishing.
  • Adobe Captive 6 – Interactive software demonstrations, simulations, assessments.
  • Adobe Illustrator CS6 – Vector-based graphics. Adobe Illustrator replaces Adobe Photoshop, which had been included in previous TCS versions.
  • Adobe RoboHelp 10 – Online help authoring and publishing.
  • Adobe FrameMaker 11 – Authoring and publishing to print or PDF, in both unstructured and structured/XML modes.

You will also find the following minor applications

  • Adobe Presenter – Demonstration videos and screencasts. Adobe lists this as a major application. One could argue about this. While Adobe Presenter is a Very Cool Tool for recording “talking head” videos and screen demonstrations, it’s not nearly as feature-rich or complex as the other five major TCS4 applications.
  • RoboScreenCapture – Screen captures.
  • RoboSource Control – Version control for online help projects.
  • Adobe Bridge – File browser for digital assets

All component products support automation with Adobe Extendscript – a Javascript-like programming language. If you can describe an algorithm for a repeatable task, it’s likely you can automate it with Extendscript.

Like previous releases of the Adobe Technical Communication Suite, TCS4 provides full capabilities of the individual point products, with additional Suite-only integration features. Some of these features are somewhat trivial, like the ability to launch Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Captivate from a FrameMaker menu option. Some are quite substantial. Let’s focus on the “killer feature” of TCS4 – multiscreen HTML5 output.

Device Explosion in a Mobile World

Tablet and mobile computing has quickly gone from a niche use case to mainstream. It’s hard to believe that the Apple iPad was introduced little more than two years ago. But now millions of devices are in the hands of consumers and deployed by businesses. And today’s consumers expect readable, accessible content on any device.

The Solution? Multiscreen HTML5

The technology trio of HTML5, Javascript, and CSS3 were explicitly designed to support today’s World Wide Web, including the proliferation of devices.

Illustration showing text layout on desktop, tablet, and smart phone.Adobe’s multiscreen HTML5 output generates a set of HTML files for each target device. Javascript serves the appropriate set dynamically, in response to CSS3 media queries that test the pixel dimensions of the client device. If you publish to four device layouts (e.g., desktop, full-size tablet, mini-tablet, smartphone), you will have four sets of HTML files on your server. Since disk space is cheap, this isn’t a big deal. And RoboHelp will generate all sets of HTML concurrently. Browser detection will serve the appropriate set of HTML to your target device.

Responsive design purists may argue that Adobe’s multiscreen HTML5 output is not True responsive design. True responsive design would use a single set of CSS property definitions and a single collection of HTML files. CSS media queries test the target screen size, and specify formatting properties appropriately for that device. But true responsive design is very challenging to code, particularly for arbitrary technical content on arbitrary devices. I think the Adobe approach is valid.

How TCS4 Supports Multiscreen HTML5

RoboHelp 10 and Adobe Captivate 6 both provide the option of HTML5 output. TCS4 extends this capability across its component applications. With RoboHelp 10 as a publishing engine, either directly or indirectly (invoked from FrameMaker in what Adobe calls “Silent Publishing”), you can create and publish to rich, device-specific layouts. These devices-specific layouts accommodate the constraints of each device, and provide appropriate content formatting, layout, and navigation based on each devices’ screen dimensions.

Providing multiscreen HTML5 support in TCS4 was a brilliant move. Lots of technical content is locked away in legacy file formats. RoboHelp. FrameMaker. Microsoft Word. Not only binary file formats, but other formats those applications support, like XML. Multiscreen HTML5 support provides a relatively easy path for organizations to publish this content to mobile devices. Let’s discuss how it works.

Live-Linking in Adobe RoboHelp 10

In the TCS4 version of RoboHelp 10, projects can include linked FrameMaker and Microsoft Word documents. Project settings allow you to map FrameMaker and Word styles and other object properties to RoboHelp styles and properties when converting to online output. For example, FrameMaker cross-references may include page numbers, which you will want to suppress in online output. You can do this by remapping cross-reference format styles. Once you’ve done this configuration work, you can re-use these settings across multiple projects, and also access these settings for direct publishing from FrameMaker.

This configuration capability has been included in all versions of Adobe Technical Communication Suite, and the ability to publish directly from FrameMaker was added in TCS3. But with TCS4, you can choose multiscreen HTML5 as an output target, and automatically generate content in appropriate formats for a range of devices. TCS4 also supports ePub 2.01, ePub 3.0, and all other previously-available output formats, including WebHelp and Adobe AIR.

Configuring Multiscreen HTML5 Output

Before you publish to multiscreen HTML5, you must select or design screen layouts for the devices you want to support. RoboHelp 10 comes with several sample layouts. A link in the screen layout dialog promises to take you to Adobe.com for more layouts, although none were present there at the time of this review.

RoboHelp 10 also includes a screen layout editor, with widgets for screen areas like TOC, search, navigation, and content. If you have a good working knowledge of HTML5, CSS3, and Javascript, you can design your own screen layouts, using these widgets as a starting point.Adobe RoboHelp 10 Screen Layout Editor

When you configure multiscreen HTML5 output, you will select among available screen layouts for each category of devices you wish to support. The “out-of-the-box” HTML5 experience is pretty good. Sample layouts work well for common devices.

Native apps with PhoneGap

TCS4 goes further than HTML5. You may want to generate native mobile applications. These applications will meet some business cases better than HTML5 applications – they are locally installed, and can be distributed (for free or for a price) in the Google Apps Marketplace, Google Play Store, or Apple App Store.

To generate native applications, TCS4 uses PhoneGap, a solution that compiles HTML5 code into a native application. Adobe acquired PhoneGap in late 2011. PhoneGap will generate native applications for all of the currently-popular mobile operating systems, including iOS, Android, Windows 7, Blackberry, and even older operating systems like Symbian and WebOS. With some programming effort, you can also access capabilities of each device, like GPS/location awareness, screen orientation detection, and vibration/alerts, that are not directly accessible via HTML5.

TCS4 provides turnkey generation of Android apps. All you need to do is provide the location of your PhoneGap installation. For the iPad, iPhone, and other devices, you will need to invoke PhoneGap outside TCS4 to process your HTML5 output.

Android Emulator

Warning: Some application development experience is required to make this work successfully. If you don’t have any software development skills, mobile application development provides a great motivator to learn, and will add a valuable, marketable skill to your repertoire.

You can test your native applications on an iPhone or Android emulators. Again, development experience is required to set up and use these emulators. For live device testing, you might consider Adobe Shadow, which simplifies the process of previewing and testing on multiple devices.

Summary

Like any feature-rich software package, Adobe Technical Communication Suite 4 has warts. I’ve addressed some of the FrameMaker-specific issues in my FrameMaker 11 review. But the support for publishing new and legacy technical content to desktops, tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices via multichannel HTML5 is well-done, and welcome in today’s increasingly mobile world.