Flare 3.1 Musings

So it’s been a while since I posted much on Flare. For a while I wasn’t using Flare in my daily work flow; I’ve actually moved all new development on the four product lines I support into my Flare work flow, ampoule but we keep needing to go back and do dot releases on an older version of our software. When I thought it was only going to be one dot release, ambulance it didn’t seem prudent to move the source into Flare. Now we’re working on the FIFTH dot release. Seems I should have made the switch. Oh well.

Anyway, for about a month now I’ve been back using Flare full-time again, and I’ve really been enjoying some of the features in the 3.x line. I didn’t really delve much into them when 3.0 first came out, so many of the new 3.0 features I’m only starting to use now in 3.1.

In any case, here are my favorites so far:

Running Headers/Footers in Word Output

One of my big complaints about InDesign compared to FrameMaker was that InDesign didn’t have an elegant way of allowing running headers and footers in your printed output. A running header/footer means the header/footer’s content changes to reflect the section of the documentation you are in. So a running header might automatically contain the name of the chapter, and a running footer might contain the text of the most recent H1 or H2 style in the document. This makes the printed document much more accessible, easy to read, and professional.

Flare 3.1 gives you the option to use running headers and footers on your Printed Masterpages. You add a variable set to your Flare project that defines the heading styles you want to grab as the header/footer text, then you insert those variables into your Masterpages.

The result is exactly what I asked for. Then I found out, I didn’t know what I wanted.

See, the running headers/footers work great if you stick to a rigid format (a-ha! the structured authoring debate comes again!) in your document structure (e.g. H1 style for chapter title; H2 style for section heading, etc.). I thought I had done that. When I created my printed output, I realized that I have certain sections in my Flare WebHelp that I have as drop-down heads. The style of the drop-down heading matches my H2 style, so in the printed output, you can’t tell whether the WebHelp uses an H2 or used a drop-down head.

That works great for masking the non-standard structure, but Flare can either use the most recent H2 in the footer, or it can use the most recent drop-down head in the footer. I have to go back to my documents and re-structure them so they are all structured the same in order to use running headers and footers in my printed output.

I don’t blame Flare for that, though. I need to pick a structure and stick with it. It’s not Flare’s fault I’m using two different structure formats in different topics.

I give the running headers/footers in Word feature two thumbs up. Thanks MadCap!

Source Control Integration from within Flare

A new feature in Flare 3.0 was source control integration from within the Flare interface. This is a cool feature that I didn’t know I needed, but one that I like the more I use it.

Flare provides direct integration with Microsoft Visual Source Save and Microsoft Team Foundation Server, and provided third-party integration with other source control systems that use the MS SCC API interface. My documentation is stored in an SVN repository, so I had to purchase a third-party plugin to get Flare to work with my source control system. (I bought my plugin from PushOK software, a vendor out of Russia. It cost me 600 Russian Rubles, which came out to about 25 dollars. I’ve been using the plugin now for a couple of months, and it works fine for me.)

I have only a few complaints here: I wish Flare supported the most common formats natively, so I didn’t have to purchase the plugin separately. And I don’t love how for some actions (like moving a folder of topics to a different location in the tree) it seems that either Flare or the plugin checks in each change as a separate revision in the source control. (I suspect this is the plugin’s doing.) Also, I purchased the plugin for one computer I use for editing the project (my main computer) but I didn’t purchase it for my backup computer. When I edit the project using my backup computer, I have problems because the SVN connection settings are stored in my flare project file, so the project files on my two computers can’t match. I hate having to purchase an extra plugin just for the occasional use of the backup computer, so I’ll probably just ignore the inconsistent settings in my project files.

Basic Style Editor

One of Flare’s strengths is the CSS editor included in Flare. In the 3.x line, they’ve stepped things up a notch by including a basic style editor and an advanced style editor. (The advanced style editor is basically the same editor we’ve seen in previous versions of Flare. The basic style editor is a new concept in 3.x.)

The advanced style editor shows all the inherited and local styles and classes in the style sheet. It also shows all the properties available for the styles and classes and lets you change them. You have quite a bit of control over how much information is shown on the screen; You can limit the styles by group, and you can limit the properties list by grouping by type, showing only set properties, or even a smart list of “relevant” properties–properties Flare thinks you might want to change for that style.

Two areas for possible improvement are: (1) Flare still has a habit of modifying my CSS just because I opened it. Example: for some reason it doesn’t like the asterisk symbol in complex selectors (e.g. ul * ol), and any time I open my stylesheet in Flare, it replaces all my asterisks with a “0002A” which I guess is code for asterisk or something. Flare Stylesheet(2) There is a toggle button to switch between the advanced view and the simplified view. However, the toggle button text shows you the view you will see if you click that button. So, in the screen shot included here, you’ll see that the toggle button says “Simplified View” even though you are seeing the Advanced View. It’s not a big deal, but it makes for a slightly confusing interface. Not to mention that the Flare help system has to explain every time how to check to see if you are really viewing the advanced view or the simplified view. Simply putting the word “Show” in front of the text would really have made this easier.

Conclusion

I still love Flare. There is a learning curve to get up and running with it, but it is a very powerful tool that in my opinion just keeps getting better and better.

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PS: I suppose I ought to post a bit of news (and a sort-of disclaimer). Due to my activity in the Flare user forums, last month I was invited by Flare Support to be a MadCap MVP, and I accepted. I use the pseudonym “DocGuy” in the forums. This doesn’t make me a MadCap lackey; some MVPs are known for speaking their minds in opposition of perceived problems at MadCap. However, I am a volunteer forum moderator for the MadCap Forums, and I am a MadCap aficionado. But I don’t suppose that last bit is very surprising to anybody. 🙂

3 Responses to Flare 3.1 Musings

  1. Tom Johnson November 8, 2007 at 2:17 pm #

    Paul, thanks for sharing your experiences with Flare. I always like to read real user’s experiences with products.

    Congrats on your new Madcap MVP status!

    Here’s a MadCap question for you. I really like Captivate. Can I insert a Captive movie into Flare, or do I have to use Mimic to achieve the embedded movies?

  2. Tom Johnson November 8, 2007 at 2:19 pm #

    By the way, you’d really enjoy these two podcasts on Flare from Alistair Cristie. Check out the latest two.

    http://www.itauthor.com/wordpress/category/podcasts/

    Flare: The Good stuff:
    http://www.itauthor.com/wordpress/2007/11/01/itauthor-podcast-11-october-31st-2007-flare-the-good-stuff/

    Why do we use Flare:
    http://www.itauthor.com/wordpress/2007/10/24/itauthor-podcast-10-october-24th-2007-why-do-we-use-flare/

  3. paul November 9, 2007 at 8:57 am #

    Tom,

    Thanks for the podcasts. I didn’t get a chance to listen to them yesterday, but I hope to today. I actually subscribed to itauthor’s podcast in iTunes, so thanks.

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