Author-it and MadCap Flare comparison

I’ve had more than a few questions asking for a review of Author-it or MadCap Flare or a comparison of both. So I decided to do some homework. Initially, I wasn’t sure why they are categorized together. Is it due to the price point? Or is it due to the single-sourcing all-in-one software package aspect? I suspect it’s the latter since the former seems more disparate lately.

Let’s examine the single-sourcing aspects.

Both MadCap Flare and Author-it only work on Windows for authoring (but both offer cross-platform and cross-browser output).

Both MadCap Flare and Author-it output to printed and online formats. These formats and the way they arrive at the output offer some differences, as seen in the “publishing aspects” section below.

Both MadCap Flare and Author-it have a single place to store source.

Both are sourced in databases. The single source for MadCap Flare is in a flat folder structure with XML files.  MySQL database. The single source for Author-it is in either a free Jet/MSDE/SQL Express database for up to 4 MGB of content, or SQL Server.

Author-it only imports Word documents. Flare imports both Word and FrameMaker documents as projects.

What are the publishing aspects?

Author-it uses Word templates for all printed page layout. If you’re well-versed and experienced in Word for page layout, this product works for you.

Author-it uses CSS for HTML layout, but some layout and graphics are controlled in different areas. I had to uncover the locations for each graphic and CSS area recently while customizing the HTML output for the One Laptop Per Child project. In my experience the HTML layout was all over the place. From templates to stored objects to files stored locally to certain aspects changed within a dialog box on a template, I felt like the online layout was a bit scattered.

Here are links to their Knowledge Center articles that were helpful: Customizing Related Topics in HTML, Adding a Customized HTML Template, and Using a Customized HTML Frameset. I muddled through somehow, and I don’t have a good comparison for MadCap Flare’s HTML output.

Keith Soltys has a nice Review of MadCap Flare from summer of 2007 that shed some light onto the publishing and he speaks highly of the layout rendering nicely in both FireFox and Internet Explorer. It’s interesting, though, that he’s evaluating Author-it as well, so I guess these two products are often compared side-by-side.

Apparently MadCap Flare uses CSS for all layout aspects including print. The new Blaze announcement offers a non-Frame and non-Word reliance for actual PDF or print output. The reliance on CSS (Word’s interpretation of CSS has its limits) may have forced MadCap to create Blaze. Anyone else think you should wait for the CSS 3.0 specification before really nit-picky print layouts can be accomplished? Or is CSS ready for this level of design? I know with the OLPC project, we’d love CSS layout for really nice ebooks, so maybe MadCap is onto something with CSS for print layout.

I’ve written up this comparison because many people have asked me for it, but I know it’s lacking. Please, feel free to fill in the gaps that this post has so that others may fairly evaluate each tool in their environment.

I had an email conversation with Kai many months ago, who was a good sport with all of my questions regarding the content and priorities with that content. He realized, though, that Author-it was probably eliminated due to its use of SQL Server – they wanted a MySQL database container for their content. So I figured that MadCap was their final answer. It is so interesting how the final decision can be dictated by the underlying system requirements. One of the commenters on Gordon Mclean’s post, Why AuthorIT? (sic, they’re now Author-it) was seeking a similar authoring tool but on a Mac platform.

Sorry Kai for dropping the conversation for so long. But please do share your experience with the tools since then.

54 Comments

  • George T
    June 8, 2012 - 11:36 pm | Permalink

    To Steve Winter:

    Your situation is geared totally toward a Word/document output. Pages and page numbering are totally irrelevant for those producing output to the web, and even WYSIWYG doesn’t mean a lot when CSS takes over the graphical control of content piped to a browser.

    If you are steering your content exclusively by page numbers, then it appears to me that:

    a) you have not grasped how systems like Flare and Author-it operate, and

    b) you are still stuck in a document-centric paradigm from the past that has been surpassed by much improved workflow situations other than for working with MS Word, which in all honesty, is an awful application to work with.

    Others have understood the concepts that these applications are about. But it seems you haven’t.

  • Elizabeth Michaud
    June 19, 2013 - 10:50 am | Permalink

    I have been using Flare for a couple of years. I agree with others who say it has a steep learning curve. However, as the solo writer in my shop, I really need a product with low overhead. At my previous job, we had tried Structured FrameMaker, which was a nightmare – the opposite of low overhead. We would have needed someone at least half time just to manage all the FrameMaker control files, and Structured FrameMaker requires a CMS but doesn’t provide it. It also doesn’t provide any built-in tools for creating online help; you have to buy yet another tool for that.

    At my present job, I needed a tool that would import happily from diverse legacy tools, operated with low overhead, didn’t need a separate CMS, provided the ability to single-source the content, and could output to all the usual delivery formats, especially web help and PDF. Flare does all of those things, in a very clean and straightforward way. Its only big downside for me is that to really control the look of your output, you are well advised to become expert at CSS. I am not, yet, but I did an acceptable job creating a template that formats our web help output.

    My challenge now is that a colleague at our branch in the UK has been asked to switch his manuals from Author-It to Flare, so that he and I can be using the same tool. Our company is very cost-conscious, and I suspect that Flare’s cost per seat is substantially lower than Author-It’s.

    The problem we have to solve is how to export his content from Author-It so that we can import it into Flare. Flare does not import directly from Author-It, because it doesn’t talk to SQL databases.

    Has anyone out there already found a satisfactory solution to this problem, perhaps by exporting the content from Author-It into some intermediate format that Flare could then import?

    Thanks in advance for any suggestions you may have!

  • Kirsty
    June 19, 2013 - 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Elizabeth,
    I’d probably be looking at exporting the AuthorIT content to XML or publishing to HTML or similar to import it into Flare. I would also test and try with small pieces of content first, tweak, learn, before deciding what import format to use.
    Something for your colleague to be conscious of, is the content reuse he currently has. I believe he may have to re-establish that reuse in Flare.

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