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What Good is the Help Menu?

"So what good is the Balloon Help menu? I already know how to use my Mac!"

I’ve been hearing this question a lot lately, as I eavesdrop on the networks and bulletin boards. A lot of people seem to think that:

  • It’s only for system software.
  • It’s only for turning the balloon display on and off.
  • It wastes space on the menu bar.

These are all misconceptions. Let’s take them in order.

"It’s only for system software." Actually, any application can use the Help menu. Applications can have their own balloons to explain their own menus, windows, and controls. We haven’t seen much of this yet because most of us haven’t yet gotten our System 7-savvy upgrades and new applications. But the developers are all jumping on the bandwagon: I haven’t heard of a single upgrade or new product since the release of System 7 that will not include Balloon Help.

"It’s only for turning the balloon display on and off." Click over to the Finder for a minute, if you’re running System 7. Pull down the Help menu. There’s an item at the bottom called "Finder Shortcuts". You may have thought that was a special hack just for the 7.0 Finder; it’s not. Any application can add its own custom menu items to the Help menu. (And by the way, that’s its proper name: not the "Balloon Help" menu, but just the "Help" menu. It’s not just for balloons!)

Apple intends for the Help menu to become the standard place for users to go for on-line help: not just for balloons, but for the manual pages that you currently have to turn over all the rocks to find. ("Is there a menu called ‘Help’? No… maybe it’s in the Apple menu, under ‘About MacFoo’. Rats, not there. Check ALL the menus, looking for an item called ‘Help’. Rargh! Uh, maybe there’s a ‘Help’ button in the About box….") Just think how nice it will be when most apps have online help, and all in the same place!

"It wastes space on the menu bar." Well, yes and no – mostly no. In System 7, there can be as many as three iconic menus at the right end of the menu bar: the Keyboard menu, the Help menu, and the Application menu. (The Keyboard menu is for users who must change the keyboard layout for typing in different languages. Many users don’t need it, and never see it.) Both the Keyboard and Help menus will automatically disappear whenever your regular menus need the room, so normally these menu icons don’t waste space.

The only conflict is with menu bar clock INITs. Many people use them, and some apparently can’t live without them. They make two kinds of problem. First, older INITs don’t know about the Help and Keyboard menus, and don’t move over to make room for them. Second, a menu bar clock is not a menu: the Menu Manager doesn’t know it’s there and can’t make room for it when space gets tight. A menu bar clock on a 9" screen can find itself helplessly squeezed between the Help menu on the right and MS Word’s menus on the left!

Some people, wanting to keep their menu bar clocks, have figured out ways to remove the Help menu altogether. They figure that they won’t ever need it, or that they can use one of the new freeware or shareware hacks to turn on Balloon Help from the keyboard. I don’t recommend this. I hope I’ve convinced you by now that the Help menu is important and will soon become very useful to you, and that the balloons are not the only important feature.

I’d recommend that you live without your menu bar clock, either for a while (until System 7-savvy menu bar clocks appear), or forever. The menu bar clock can be replaced by a watch, a wall clock, a five-dollar stick-on digital clock, the Alarm Clock DA, or any of a half-dozen nifty freeware window-clock applications. But the only substitute for good on-line help is a paper manual, and I doubt whether you enjoy getting them out and flipping their pages any more than I do.

So, that’s what good the Help menu is! In about a year, you may wonder how you ever lived without it.

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