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Interview with Mike Hamilton, VP Product Development, MadCap Software

The online help authoring software industry has been one that has long been dominated by Macromedia's RoboHelp product. Technical writers use online help tools to create online manuals, context sensitive help, and built in help screns for various software products. San Diego-based MadCap Software (www.madcapsoftware.com) is a new startup which is tackling the changing online help industry by developing XML-based help software that helps writers create XML-based help content. I spoke to Mike Hamilton, the company's VP of Product Development about the company and how its software fits into the help authoring market.

BK: What's MadCap Software about?

MH: We are actually quite an interesting story. True, we are a startup, but we are not new to this industry. The founders of MadCap Software are the same folks that brought the software development and technical writing industries RoboHelp, first as Blue Sky Software and then as eHelp Corporation (name change only, no change in ownership). RoboHelp dominates the market for help authoring tools which are used to create software documentation. In late 2003 Macromedia acquired eHelp Corporation. After 15 months of Macromedia ownership, several Macromedia layoffs, and a series of Macromedia decisions which alienated the existing RoboHelp customer base we have re-formed the old core RoboHelp team as MadCap software. We officially launched MadCap Software at the WritersUA trade show in Las Vegas on March 21 to an amazing reception from the community we serve. Word is spreading like wildfire, doing a Google search on "MadCap Flare" already returns over 200 hits on industry pundit blogs and industry news sites, despite our only having announced a short time ago.

BK: What does your software do?

MH: Our software allows non-technical writers and business professionals to author XML-based content, but with the simplicity of using a word processor. Users gain all of the power and flexibility of working in an XML-based work flow without having to know anything about the complexities of XML. Flare will fill the space between XML tools for programmers (too complex for professional writers who want to focus on content) and XML tools for the Enterprise (too expensive and difficult to set up for most companies). Flare will have a very similar work flow to RoboHelp and will be able to import legacy RoboHelp content. This means that existing RoboHelp customers will be able to leverage years of existing work directly into the Flare environment. Just as RoboHelp made the creation of RTF-based systems in the early 90's and HTML-based systems in the late 90's possible for non-technical writers and business professionals Flare will bring this same power, flexibility, and ease of use to XML-based authoring.

We have already been doing pre-alpha demos of our new editor at the show in Las Vegas and will be doing demos again at the Society for Technical Communication annual conference in Seattle in May. Our current roadmap is for a summer beta with a fall release.

BK: How does your XML-based tool fit into existing help systems, and what software now supports using XML-based help?

MH: MadCap Flare will use a three step process/workflow. First is the import process. There will be wizards to help users import legacy content such as existing RoboHelp projects, Microsoft Word documents, Adobe FrameMaker files, etc. Second is the authoring environment. This is where imported content is maintained or where new content can be created. It will be a WYSIWYG type of environment, but will be a real-time transformation of the underlying XML file. Like RoboHelp, advanced users can bypass the visual editor and work directly in a markup view. The third step in the workflow is the transformation of the project content into the various help formats. We will be supporting the major industry standard formats such as Microsoft HTML Help (.chm files), Microsoft Help for LongHorn (when released by Microsoft), JavaHelp, and we are looking at support for the native help format on the Macintosh as well. We will also provide a transform for creating an XHTML-based cross browser solution providing the full online help experience inside the web browser. There are additional outputs we are working on that will be announced during Beta. By supporting the existing industry formats authors can gain the advantages of using an XML-based workflow (ease of sharing content with translation/localization services, use of variables and conditional content, etc.) while still providing their developers the formats they are accustomed to using.

BK: What's different about your tool vs. existing offerings -- ie I see that MacroMedia, ArborText, Interleaf, and others already support XML? How is this different?

MH: There are a lot of XML tools and workflows out there, but they either fall into the "you better really know what you're doing" camp of editors designed for programmers or they fall into the enterprise camp where it takes a lot of resources to set up a system, create custom/proprietary transforms, maintain the system, etc. Many small to medium sized companies don't have the in-house expertise to build and maintain such systems. MadCap Flare is designed to fill that gap in between. Will MadCap Flare create XML files - yes, but the author doesn't have to even realize this. Will MadCap Flare provide transforms to repurpose this XML content into other useful formats - yes, but the author doesn't need to know what the term transform means, let alone have to know how to write one. MadCap Flare will be an affordable, shrink-wrap, turn-key solution.

BK: Have you had any issue with your prior employer launching a competing company?

MH: MadCap Software has no connection with Macromedia. In a general sense we are a competing company in that both products will be able to build help systems and online documentation, but the distinction is in the technology. While it is common knowledge that RoboHelp is based on HTML and has to work within the limitations of HTML, MadCap Flare is based on XML with the associated separation of content and formatting which provides greater flexibility and a much stronger authoring platform for the future. Also, considering Macromedia's lack of a RoboHelp release since their acquisition of eHelp, we want to make sure that existing RoboHelp users have a future upgrade path when the market changes. There are several industry events coming that could have significant impact such as the release of new browser versions and the coming release of the LongHorn version of Microsoft Windows. Will RoboHelp be able to handle these industry changes? That is a question that only Macromedia can answer. Flare is being built to not only handle these industry changes, but to take maximum advantage of them.

BK: How are you funding the company?

MH: Very well, thank you. OK, kidding aside, we are very well funded by a syndicate of private investors.

BK: Finally, what's the next steps for Madcap?

MH: Where most start-ups are concerned with getting enough business, we are actually dealing with the opposite problem. We are making sure that we build enough capacity to satisfy the help authoring market. This includes our ability to handle the overwhelming number of beta signups we have already received, making sure our technical support program is robust and in place prior to launch, and ramping up our sales and marketing infrastructure. Beyond our first release, we obviously have many ideas on where we would like to take the product, but all of those plans and ideas must first be validated with the actual customers. Some of the things I can say about the future, we have committed to Microsoft that we will be supporting the new Help format they are developing for the LongHorn release of Windows, which includes support for their new MAML schema (Microsoft Assistive Markup Language). We will also be creating additional output transforms based on early market requests.

BK: Thanks for the interview!


 

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