You’re getting a lot of tool/technology suggestions. Here’s some of the advantages/disadvantages of each, so you can make a good decision.
Website vs. Distributed Document
Question #1 to answer is whether you want to create a website or a document to be distributed. The OP mentioned distributing the document to everyone’s PCs on CDs, which is a fine option, but if your company has an intranet, a website would be an option as well. One benefit is that the manual would be located in one central location, so updating the manual would only require you to update the website – you wouldn’t have to distribute a new set of CDs or worry if somebody is still using an old version. The disadvantage is that you introduce site maintenance/security issues, and that access to the manual requires a connection to the intranet – users can’t view the manual if they’re not on the network or if the network is down.
Note that a website isn’t the only way to make the manual available from a central location. Any document can be placed in a shared folder on a network, and be accessed from any PC with access to the network.
Powerpoint is presentation software. It can be used to create a manual, but it’s like pounding in nails with a screwdriver – you can do it, but why bother when there are perfectly good hammers lying around? It would also require Powerpoint to be installed on all PC’s that needed to view the document, and that ain’t cheap.
Adobe Acrobat (PDF)
Adobe Acrobat is an industry standard for creating hyperlinked documents and manuals – if you’ve ever lost the product manual for your DVD player and went to the manufacturer’s website to download a replacement, it most likely came as a PDF document. If you’re creating a distributed document, this is a fine choice. Creating a PDF document requires Adobe Acrobat ($300 for standard, $450 for pro), or a document converter that can convert other file formats (such as MS Word) into PDF files. Reading a PDF document requires Acrobat Reader, which can be downloaded free from Adobe. You can even distribute the reader on your CDs, as long as you follow the rules in the license agreement. PDF readers are available for all major operating systems, including PDA’s. Another nice thing about PDF files is they print well if you want to create a hardcopy of your manual – HTML documents require seperate printing of each page and don’t always come out looking like what you expected. Some people do find the Acrobat Reader UI to be a bit clunky.
HTML is the standard for interactive, hyperlinked documents. Browsers are available for all operating systems, and everybody’s familiar with the look and feel of an HTML document. Learning to write HTML is very easy, but you can also use many tools to create HTML pages if you don’t want to learn it. Even tools not intended solely for HTML authoring can export to HTML (such as MS Word), although they don’t always produce the cleanest HTML and some (notoriously Word) lean towards Microsoft’s standards rather than more widely accepted standards.
For a website, HTML is your solution. For a distributed document, HTML will work, but you will be distributing a large number of files – a file for each page in your manual, plus each image and any style sheets used. If you’re going to distribute your document, you’re much better off compiling it to…
Compiled HTML Help (CHM)
The current standard for creating a help file in Windows is to compile a collection of HTML files into a single CHM file. Creating a CHM file will be just like creating an HTML document – you write all your HTML files (or have them generated by authoring software), and then use some tool to compile them all into one file, ready for distribution. Because it’s the default Windows help method, no reader is required – any Windows PC already has the software to display it. The help file compiler will have tools for creating a table of contents and index, so you want have to create HTML pages for those, and search capability is built in. This option isn’t much different than creating a PDF, except that the UI is more similar to your web browser, and many people are more comfortable with it. On the other hand, it’s Windows-dependant, and doesn’t print as well. You can download tools for compiling HTML files into a CHM document from Microsoft for free, but that tool (Help Workshop, I think) is kind of clunky. Third party software, such as RoboHelp, can also be used to create CHM files, but then you have to pay.
Hope this info is helpful.