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Balloon Help is an assistance technology under the Classic Mac OS. It was part of the Macintosh system since System 7.

The idea was to choose Show Balloons from the Guide menu or Help menu. Context-sensitive balloons then would appear wherever you point, with text in 9-point Geneva font.

Apple provides balloons for most of the Mac OS; this includes the Mac OS itself, the desk accessories, control panels, and oft-used applications such as the Finder, SimpleText, and so on and so forth.

Microsoft and Claris also provide Balloon Help. However, balloons must be written using an application called BalloonWriter, which is extremely buggy, and balloons must be written for each state: active, checked, dimmed, and checked and dimmed. The excess work is what discourages some software companies from incorporating Balloon Help into their applications.

As of System 7.5, a newer kind of on-screen assistance, Apple Guide, came into play.

Origins and Development[]

During the leadup to System 7, Apple studied the online help system in depth, and identified two main types of questions users asked; what is this thing? and how do I accomplish.... Existing help systems typically didn't provide useful information on either of these topics, and were often nothing more than the paper manual copied into a document form. Given that they identified two problem areas, it is somewhat surprising then that the addressed only one. Although a convincing solution for "how do I" eventually shipped years later, System 7 included only a what is this thing? system in the form of balloon help. It was perhaps the best example of a system that was both over- and under-developed at the same time.

The underlying system was based on a set of resources holding text for widgets in the system, the widgets themselves being resources in the application. This allowed balloon help to be added easily in standard applications like ResEdit, although Apple also supplied a custom editor application to improve the process. Developers were encouraged to include help text with a certain grammar, and not only name the object being looked at, but also explain to the user any state it might have. For instance, modern tooltips might say something like "Copies the selected text onto the clipboard", but under balloon help the authors were encouraged to also add statements like "Not available now because there is no selection." For someone trying to understand why a particular menu item was greyed out, this feature was invaluable, and sadly lacking from more modern systems. The engine would display the proper balloon based on the state, and also position the balloon using a clever algorithm to keep it away from the objects being examined. Developers could also include balloons for the application icon itself, allowing users to identify unknown applications in the Finder.

At the same time it seemed that Apple's own developers did not spend much time actually using the system. It was terribly slow on low-end machines due to its "fancy graphics", so slow that it was painful to use. Adding to this pain was the fact that the balloons would instantly appear, meaning that simply moving the mouse around the display would often lead to a series of delays while the balloons popped up and disappeared again. Just as annoying was the fact that the balloons could only be turned on and off from a menu, making it somewhat frustrating when you were attempting to identify a particular object. When you actually went through the trouble, you invariably found that the only items with balloons were those you already knew, like the close box or menu bar.

Clearly the problems with balloon help were entirely practical (as opposed to theoretical) and fairly easy to solve. A better delay before displaying the balloon would have helped a lot, and an even better solution would be to have the balloons be turned on only when the Help key was held down. The system should have also included some way to select what balloons would be displayed, allowing you to turn off the "standard" ones you already knew. Just as useful would have been a way to turn on all the balloons on a window, illustrating all the widgets at once.

Instead of fixing balloon help, Apple simple abandoned it. A tooltips-like system was used in OpenStep and retained for Mac OS X, but lacks the functionality of balloons, arguable as it might be.

Sources and References[]

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