Software Review: MadCap Flare 9 has Much to Offer

by Patrick Lufkin

The technical communication environment continues to grow ever more challenging. Markets and target audiences are truly global. Users expect content to be delivered on a daunting array of platforms using different technologies and screen sizes. Users want both online delivery–web-pages, links, videos–but also PDFs they can print. Users grown accustomed to social media increasingly expect to be able to question and comment on your online content. And worse, if you’ve been around for a while, you probably have a large cache of legacy documents in outdated formats that don’t quite fit into the evolving scene.

If the forgoing sounds familiar, you may want to take a good hard look at the latest release of MadCap Flare.

First released in 2006, Flare has matured into a robust and versatile authoring platform for just about anything you would want to produce for online or print.

Flare 9 offers a number of enhancements that I want to touch on, but first, for those who aren’t familiar with Flare, I would like to describe the basic product.

Flare is a single-sourcing, topic-based authoring platform, which uses XML markup for maximum flexibility. Using Flare, you can store and manage all of your content in one place, and then output as many variants as you need, in as many formats as you need. For example, you could produce two versions of a workbook, a student’s version showing only the problems, and an instructor’s version with the answers filled in. Or you could produce several versions of an employee handbook, one for display on a desktop computer, one for use in a class, and others optimized for small-screen mobile devices used by employees in the field.

For those used to authoring in Word or FrameMaker, Flare may take a little getting used to because it works best using a different mindset and a different workflow. Instead of writing a long document with embedded formatting, you produce a collection of topics, each in its own file. The topics aren’t the final output, but serve as the source from which a wide variety of final outputs may be drawn. When it comes time to generate output, Flare gathers the needed content from the various files, sequences it, applies formatting, and makes it compatible with specific devices using output definitions called targets.

Everything you need to produce various outputs—content files, templates, master pages, style sheets, and so on—is held, organized, and managed as a Flare Project. Flare comes with an array of well-designed project elements, which you can use, modify, or replace as needed. Flare provides a wizard that will create a project for you, selecting elements based on your needs. If you have existing content, you can convert it into a Flare project using tools and filters built into Flare. Flare can import from Word, FrameMaker, DITA, and many online help formats.

For entering content, Flare provides both an XML editor and a WYSIWYG text editor. In Flare 9, both editors are fully integrated so that changes made in one are immediately reflected in the other. Most authors will choose to work in the WYSIWYG text editor because you do not need to know anything about XML to use it. In either case, files are stored as standards-compliant XML.

Flare includes a full complement of tools and features to make your job easier–dictionaries, spell checkers, table and equation editors, tools for inserting special characters and symbols, and more. You can store text that will often be reused, such as warnings and legal boilerplate, in snippets, and store text liable to change, such as product names and versions, in variables. Flare also has tools for managing the reviewing process, and for tracking project progress, generating reports, and locating possible problems such as broken links.

Over the years MadCap has responded well to the needs of its users so the core product is already well designed. Still Flare 9 offers a number of attractive enhancements. A few of the enhancements should be appreciated by everyone; others are aimed at users with specialized needs. In the first category, Flare is now bundled with Capture, MadCap’s screen capture utility. Prior to Flare 9, Capture was only available as a separate product. In the second category, Flare now offers extensive support for right-to-left languages such as Arabic. Not everyone needs this capability, but those who do will find it hard to obtain elsewhere.

Among other enhancements, Flare 9 now includes:

  • A new version of the equation editor.
  • Enhanced support for print output-including CMYK ink support-enabling the production of high-quality, full-color, press-printed documents.
  • Enhanced support for HTML 5 and CSS 3.
  • Enhanced ability to use complex conditional expression for including or excluding content, including the use of Boolean expressions.
  • EPub output has been upgraded to support EPub 3, and now also supports MOBI output to be viewed on a Kindle.
  • Enhanced support for socially enabled output through a new product called MadCap Pulse.

More in-depth coverage of the new features can be found in Mathew Ellison’s article in the March, 2013, issue of Intercom (requires log in to access).

Patrick Lufkin is a past-president of the San Francisco chapter, and a book reviewer for the STC Journal, Technical Communication. He is Co-chair of Touchstone, the Northern California technical communication competition, and Chair of the Kenneth M. Gordon Scholarship for Technical Communication.

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