Technical documentation platform provider MindTouch tonight announced an interesting new feature in its flagship product: MindTouch Contextual Help. The feature offers the ability to integrate collaboratively written documentation inline into web and desktop application interfaces, instead of only publishing it as a standalone document elsewhere. In contrast, forums, PDFs and other standalone Help systems are "antiquated" and see low user engagement, the company says.

This would be quite a development for any Content Management System but it's even more intriguing when considered in light of MindTouch's initial product years ago: an open source Wiki that could display dynamic, programmatically piped-in data from 3rd party services. In a way, Mindtouch is still that - but nine months ago the company launched a platform specifically intended to serve customers building technical support documents. From the ultimate in wide open publishing technology, Mindtouch has now focused on infusing the same type of functionality into the interfaces of more traditionally created software. You might say it's a story of Read/Write technology growing up. Will it work? If it doesn't trade too much simplicity for this newfound sophistication, it very well could.

MindTouch says its new contextual help for apps feature is like "an F1 button for the cloud era" - offering users instant pop-ups of Help information contextual to where they find themselves in an app. The MindTouch platform is a Content Management System that allows technical writers to create, edit and manage that Help content - now it can be integrated directly into the apps themselves without regularly engaging engineers or designers. In other words, just like so many other Web 2.0 tools - this system aims to lower the technical barrier to entry to publishing and managing a certain kind of content - in this case documentation offered right inline with other content and functionality (apps) with much higher technical requirements to product.

The only risk I can see at first glance is that by putting the content creation activity in one interface and the resulting publishing activity in another interface, delivered across disparate and non-linear screens, there may be some increase in mental overhead when compared to publishing whole, singular, linear Help documents. That's just for the documentation publisher, though - it seems quite clear that offering this documentation contextually and inline is likely to lower the investment required by those who would read it. MindTouch has argued for several years that improved user experiences for readers of technical manuals, for example, delivered clear business value to the companies that published those manuals.

The system offers analytics about what kinds of Help app users invoke and MindTouch says that includes opportunities to up-sell. The Contextual Help product starts at $2000 per year.

Open, collaborative, self-publishing technologies revolutionized the web over the past 10 years. For them to integrate themselves and their benefits into the rest of the world may be their next big challenge.