Missing Manuals

David Pogue of the NYTimes is the founding editor of the Missing Manual series at OReilly. Now in this new world of severely down-sized documentation there is life-saving series of books that fill the gap that have been left by so many software vendors. I can understand why say a Microsoft or Adobe or McAfee might want to cut corners and therefore make more money on license sales or through sales of Microsoft Press or Adobe Press books that cover some of the missing information. However, it is very hard to understand why Open Source organizations would so readily abandon such revenue streams – paltry as they might seem to be.

One of the key tenets of Open Source is that you make your money from supplying information, training and support on how to make the most from using your software. Now why would you want to let others describe and dictate how users are to get the most from your systems ? As an Open Source software creator I would certainly not want to cede this important task and valuable revenue stream to third parties no matter how good they are.

So I was surprised to find the following two Missing Manuals from OReilly Press available – Facebook the Missing Manual by E. A. Vander Veer and Wikipedia the Missing Manual by John Broughton from OReilly Press. In both cases, especially Facebook , I really had expected the vendors to set the standard of how their software is to be properly used. But on the other hand there was a clear need for a Users Guide in each case. So lets see how well OReilly has done the Missing manual job.

Facebook the Missing Manual by E. A. Vander Veer ($20, 268 pages from OReilly Press) can be thought of as Users Manual for an enormously popular and fast growing social acquaintance site. It original target market was senior high schol student and college age. Hardly a new venue with MySpace aand HotMail/Yahoo/Google Mail plus IRC and Instant Messaging already filling at least some part of those needs. But Facebook brings to the table three things that Yahoo, Google and Microsoft – all Web savvy have failed to do:
1)the ability to bring AJAX based GUI ease of use to a mix of blog, photo gallery, mail exchange, and other features
2)delivering an attractive combination of mail/messaging, flirting, advertising, collaborating, sharing, plus now a growing stock of internal and 3rd party games, services and applications;
3)offer the core services at a price that is hard to beat – free.
Now if Facebook is so easy and straightforward to use, why is there any need for a Missing Manual? Well first there is only the barest of bones offered as Help throughout Facebook are two reasons. True users can often infer what needs to be done; but there are such tasks as setting up your image galleries, configuring security preferences, and joining groups that are better done with guidance rather than trial and error efforts. Hit or miss can have not just embarrassing results.

The second missing ingredient is an overview of what Facebook can do for you. Now partially this may be due to the fact that Facebook friends and groups will serve as unofficial guides to getting the most out of the website. I know a Social Engineering colleague who regularly uses “the Facebook dilemma” as a pickup line of malarkey. But also I know a number of Facebook friends that are completely unaware of some of the major features of the website.

Fortunately this Missing Manual covers both shortcomings reasonably well. The Introduction chapter covers such topics as How Facebook Works , What You Can Do With Facebook, concluding with Professional Uses of Facebook. So quickly readers get a pretty good idea of what Facebook is about. My major complaint – there is inexplicably no Table of Contents at the beginning where users can track down theses major Facebook points of interest.

But once into the Facebook manual, there is a good walkthrough from getting started through sending messages, to collaborating on Projects with Facebook. Each chapter carefully walks through the step, with plenty of screenshots so it is hard to get lost. And the Manual covers such topics as Group interactions which fits many of the informal networks found in company work groups which is another natural Facebook “community”. No there are not Calendars, Event Planning and Tracking , or To-do lists. However, there are a growing set of 3rd party apps that do address some of these needs. The Missing Manual does not discuss these apps in detail but rather provides some useful links where one can fill in the blanks. In sum, at $20 Facebook The Missing Manual delivers on its mission – getting users up to speed in the program with minimum fuss.

Wikipedia the Missing Manual by John Broughton ($30, 477 pages OReilly Press)
Again this is a users manual to Wkipedia, not a system manual. So the assumption is that the Wiki has already been installed, is tuned and is running. There are no docs on Server, PHP, or configuration. Instead readers are given the lowdown on running a Wiki. So naturally enough, the first part is about creating, editing and maintaining articles in a Wiki. Given that more vendors are using wikis as forum for frequently asked questions about using their products or services (see for example, the wiki at Adobe Labs), both corporate staff as well a users will be seeing more wikis in product support or internally for project planning then ever before.

So the basic skills of editing and collaboration which are key to making a wiki productive are as much a part of this Missing Manual as the technical details of for monitoring say vandalism or spam. This is what sets this Missing Manual apart. It is all about the human and social processes that make editing nd maintaing a wikipedia effective.

Now dont be misled there are plenty of technical details with chapters on naming, redirects and disambiguation or the proper use of categories and reorganizing steps. And since wikis are the slef-maintaing information sources it is no surprise to see at least three levels of RMOs – Rich Maintenance Options embedded into wikis directly. Rich Maintenance Options allow developers to offer a range of support and maintenance level or options for maintaining a system before major rerites or updates have to be done to a system. RMOs start with configuration files and preferences, then add styling, templates or other working customizations, then provide more detailed customizing with scripting.

The Wikipedia Missing Manual covers just such RMOs in wikis. There are wide range of preferences and post start up configurations. Less is available in templates and stylings which I had expected given their prevalence in other Open Source content management systems like Joomla, WordPress or PHPBBS. But the Missing Manual covers the basics of using JavaScript to extend and enahnce your wiki services and has links to some powerful 3rd party sites and services. In sum, if one keeps in mind that this Missing Manual is primarily a Users Guide and not a Systems Programming Manual, your $30 will be well spent if that coincides with your needs.