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"AIR Help" - Cross-Platform Help System

"AIR Help" is a term that refers to any user assistance application developed using Adobe's AIRTM (Adobe Integrated Runtime) development technology. This is not an official Adobe term. It is a term (coined by Scott Prentice in 2007) that refers to any type of user assistance (or Help) application developed using Adobe AIR.

AIR Help entries on the Leximation Blog:

The Adobe AIR development platform lets you deploy cross-platform, rich Internet applications on the desktop. This means that you should be able to take your existing "web help" files, and wrap them up in an AIR application that can be installed as a Help system. The same AIR application can be installed on Windows, Mac, and Linux systems.

The AIR runtime environment includes its own integrated web browser (WebKit), which means that your Help system will look the same on all supported platforms. Not only can you wrap up your web help files, but you can also develop highly interactive applications that leverage HTML, Javascript, Flash, Flex, and Ajax. The Flex development environment can be used to develop these applications, and this framework is in the process of going open source.

For more information visit the following URLs:

There are two commercially available tools that allow you to export Help as an AIR application (aka "AIR Help"), Adobe's RoboHelp 8 and MadCap Software's Flare 6. Adobe also offers a utility called RoboHelp Packager for Adobe AIR which lets you generate an AIR Help file from a RoboHelp WebHelp project (for use with RoboHelp 6 or 7). All of these options result in an AIR-based cross-platform Help system without needing to develop and manage the underlying ActionScript code yourself. Definitely worth looking into!

If you are using RoboHelp 8, check out the following eLearning session from RJ Jácquez of Adobe, titled "Building Web 2.0 User Assistance with Adobe AIR and RoboHelp 8." It's a little long, but does provide all of the info you'll need to produce AIR Help from RoboHelp 8.

If you want to create your own custom AIR Help system, you'll need to do some coding and design work. This can be done using the Flex development environment as well as others (one promising IDE is called Aptana Studio .. www.aptana.com/studio). You can also do this coding outside of an IDE and use the command-line compiler to build your AIR project. Using the AIR and Flex SDKs (both free), you can build AIR applications as part of an automated publishing pipeline.

The sample files below are provided as a very basic proof of concept. There are a number of things that need to be worked out before this can be a truly viable online Help alternative, but as this gets more focus, I'm sure many people will come up with some nice options.


airhelp-ditaref_small.png The first prototype (image to the left) is a very simple use of AIR and Flex, purely as a container/wrapper for a browser-based Help system. I've tested this by wrapping up WebWorks Help as well as other "WebHelp" systems .. so far they all work quite nicely. The content for the first prototype is just a custom frameset-based Help system using the DITA Reference. Using javaScript and HTML I developed three tabs for the navigation.

airhelp-proto4_small.png The second prototype (image to the right) is a more traditional "Help system" in that it has a programmatic (tree view) navigation panel on the left, with the content displayed on the right. The navigation panels are created with an "accordion" widget, but could have just as easily used a more common tabbed control. I've been adding more features to this over time. The current version provides the following:

  • Multiple XML-defined "Contents" (TOC) panels
  • XML-defined "Index" panel
  • Full text search that uses multiple (local and remote) search indexes
  • Forward, Back, and Home buttons
  • The ability to make context-sensitive calls from an external application to display a specific topic
  • The ability for an external application to "push" a search query and display the results.
  • Position and size of window is preserved between sessions
  • Sync with TOC functionality
  • Options dialog to set the following: Remote loading of search index on startup; Check for user comments on each topic; Keep help on top.
  • "About" dialog
  • The ability to add user-comments to each topic (comments are stored on a remote server, and loaded into topic at run-time)
  • "Next" and "Previous" browsing through topics based on the TOC ordering.

DITA to AIR Help

We are working on a DITA to AIR Help plugin for use with the DITA Open Toolkit (OT 1.5). Once this is working well we will make it publicly available for download. Until then, if you are using DITA and are interested in beta testing this plugin, feel free to contact us.

A couple sample files generated with this plugin:

  • air-pdf.0.01.air [640KB]   - A simple 2-topic file that includes an embedded PDF.
  • ditafmx. [3127KB]   - The current (beta) online Help for DITA-FMx 1.1.
    This version implements the "check for updates" feature. It is also now digitally signed, so you'll need to manually uninstall the previous version (using Control Panel: Add-Remove Programs), if you installed the previous beta. After installing, click the "version" button to check for updates.


As people develop their own implementations of AIR Help, I'll collect samples for others to see. Feel free to send in yours (use the contact page).

Community Support

I've started a Yahoo group ("AIR_Help") for anyone interested in talking about these issues and sharing Help-related ideas for this new development environment.


In order to install the AIR application (the Help file in this case), you first need to install the AIR runtine environment. One of the nice things about AIR is that this runtime install is very quick and easy, and as far as I know there's no reboot required. This download is available from Adobe at the following URL:

» get.adobe.com/air

After installing the runtime, you can download and install the AIR application. To install the application, double-click the AIR file after downloading. You'll get an installation dialog that tells you the publisher is unverified and the system access is unrestricted (I believe that later versions of AIR will allow digital signing and a restricted system access option for a more friendly install. The source is provided for those interested.) You can choose to install or cancel. If you choose to install, you'll be prompted for the location to install as well as other options.

Download Prototype Four - This is the current version .. sorry no source available for this one yet.

Download Prototype Three - This is an early version of the "second" prototype shown above (source included).

Download Prototype One - Looks like the "first" prototype described above.

Download AIR Help "Basic" - Instructions and sample files for making a basic "wrapped" AIR Help file.