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One of the earliest innovations in desktop help assistance tools, the help balloon was a simple and fun visual tool that allowed users to pose a question regarding some aspect of a given program, and receive an response from the built in help files included in the software. The designation of the tool as a help balloon was due to the visual similarity of the help balloon to the balloons commonly used in comic strips to provide a visual image of the words being spoken by the characters in the cartoon panel. Designed to be fun to use as well as providing simple to understand answers, the help balloon was praised by some users and panned by others.
One of the first examples of a help balloon feature in software was Balloon Help, which was introduced by Apple in the System 7 operating system during the 1980’s. The idea was to make it possible to move a cursor over a button or icon on a tool bar and learn more about what the button would do. The explanation would go a little beyond a quick one word description, which was comforting and helpful to people who were just beginning to get comfortable with using the new personal computer technology. Instead of learning that a particular icon was to allow copying, the help balloon may go on to explain that the button was for copying selected text onto a clipboard. Rather than simply identifying a button as the paste feature, Balloon Help would go a little further and state that the button would allow any text currently on the clipboard would be pasted into a document.
While some users enjoyed this feature, others complained that the function of help balloons was slow to use, tied up a lot of system resources, and sometimes would freeze the computer, making it necessary to shut down the hard drive and reboot the system. In the case of the Apple version of help balloons, it appears no enhancements were made to the feature, and by 2001 Balloon Help was no longer available on Apple operating systems.
Over the years, the concept of the help balloon has been incorporated and refined in Microsoft help functionality, and appears to not experience the same level of issues as the earlier Apple approach. As a general computer help tool, the help balloon continues to provide a quick and easy way to learn more about a particular function with a simple glide of the mouse.