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Adobe Robohelp

Jeter Interviews Mike Hamilton at Former Blue Sky Software Office in La Jolla, Calif.

Dec 29, 2007 • general

Madpak authoring suiteCharles Jeter recorded an excellent podcast with Mike Hamilton, V.P. of product management at Madcap Software, and posted it on his blog yesterday. Jeter is a technical writer in the California area who has been carefully analyzing the online help tool market.

The following are some of my takeaways from the podcast:

  • In an interesting real estate twist, Madcap moved back into 7777 Fay Avenue, which is where the former Blue Sky Software headquarters were. (Blue Sky produced eHelp, which later became RoboHelp.) This move back into the Blue Sky's offices wasn't intentional, but it seems fitting for Madcap, whose staff consists of many former RoboHelp employees. Apparently when the real estate agent unexpectedly announced the address of the new-found property, everyone listening on the phone fell silent.
  • You can sense Mike's enthusiasm in the podcast. As a former technical writer, he and others at Madcap say they understand the technical writing community and its pain points. They're trying to solve all problems technical writers face, and they're approaching solutions for the entire workflow.
  • One can hardly ignore the impressive innovation Madcap has put forth over the past two years. They've produced a vast product line in a short amount of time. Some have even accused Madcap of having a "secret sweatshop of developers."
  • In talking about innovation, Mike says they aren't “just taking a handful of existing tools, throwing them in a box, and doing some marketing” (which he refers to as shovelware — obviously referring to Adobe's Technical Communication Suite). All of Madcap's apps were built from the ground up to support the concept of single sourcing. The products share integration of variables, visual elements, and even code.
  • Madcap Analyzer, one of their recent innovations, is a new product that Jeter says is “so good it's scary.” Madcap Analyzer allows you to see problems in the help, such as inline formatting applied instead of styles. Hamilton says they "will continue to innovate tools into this space."
  • Madcap has an open roadmap of development. They talk about what they're working on, what's coming in future releases of their products. Nothing is secret at Madcap, and they even solicit their roadmap ideas from customers.
  • Madcap actually uses their own tools to produce their documentation (what Jeter refers to as "eating their own dogfood"). This is also a point Rob Houser raised in his review of RoboHelp 7.
  • A recent San Francisco chronicle article reported that Adobe is laying off employees, while Madcap is rapidly expanding its staff and offices.
  • If you've downloaded Flare and Blaze, you know that the two look very similar. Mike says that when developers update the Blaze code base, it also updates Flare too, so that any hooks and other development foundations are available in the other products. This blending of code is how they share variables and other interactive features (and how they're able to quickly produce so many products).
  • Madcap's centralization of employees gives it an advantage when it comes to communication. If you need to talk to a developer, you can walk over to his or her desk with questions (as opposed to Adobe's distributed model, which has developers in India and offices in the U.S. and other countries.)
  • Blaze promises to be a heavy-hitter — more impressive than first imagined, apparently. The formidable Sharon Burton has joined the Madcap team as product manager and is heading up Blaze.
  • Madcap now has 25% of the market growth. This is a trend that has a sharp curve upward.

Personal Reactions

The rivalry between Madcap and Adobe isn't World War III, Mike says. But there is a strong tension between the two companies. The rivalry between Adobe and Madcap is good in an economic sense, in that it keeps consumer costs down, encourages innovation, and removes the ability for either company to sit back on their laurels.

During the podcast, Hamilton talks a lot about Madcap Capture (the integrated screen capture tool). He highlights this as an example of the integration of the Madpak authoring suite. Hamilton clarifies the purpose of the suite: Madcap is trying to provide single sourcing solutions that fit the software development workflow which technical writers live in. All the products function together to enable total single sourcing of your content.

Despite the logic behind the complete product line, the emphasis on integrated screen capture tools seems hard to buy. I almost invariably tweak my screen shots using SnagIt and Photoshop before inserting them into online help. I love both of these image capturing and editing tools. Why ask me to abandon them for something else? Every product has strengths and weaknesses and customers may want to pick and choose selectively. For example, I'd choose Captivate over Mimic, and Flare over RoboHelp, and Snagit/Photoshop over other screen capture tools, and Audacity over Echo (if they're even competitors), and Visio over some other tool they might create. In my opinion, the concept of the suite is similar to a Swiss Army knife: lots of tools in there, but all kind of mediocre.

Mike points out that content created by a variety of tools may look inconsistent. If I were to use the Madcap suite of tools, the screenshots and screen demos and online help would all have the same look and feel. And you can share variables and content more easily between a suite of tools rather than a miscellany of products.

Maybe he's right. I haven't tried the Madpak suite of tools — only Flare and Mimic separately. Maybe the concept of the suite will grow on me with use.

Where Are the Blogs?

Finally, where are the blogs? With all the war going on between Adobe and Madcap, you'd think that each product champion would be hitting it hard on the blog scene. Nope, they're both blog shy. If either were to start blogging in a whole-hearted, authentic way, they'd surely win over some of the audience.

Adobe has basically outsourced its blog to the development team in India, and Madcap sticks to its forums. Neither of these puts a personable face on for customers.

Based on some insightful comments, I decided to strike out the above. Adobe does have a good blog, and it looks like Madcap is getting ready to enter the blog scene.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.