Enterprise Software

Live from LA: Free me from electronic documentation tyranny

Lamont Adams is in a nostalgic mood. Return with him now to the days when software manuals were so massive, you needed a pack horse to transport them.


One of the nice things about my job here at Builder.com is that I get a lot of free developer’s toys. Mostly these are books, but during certain times of the year, the ratio of software to books increases dramatically. I’ve always been excited by new development tools, so I enjoy it when I get a new package for review. It’s a bit like opening gifts on Christmas morning.

However, some element has always been missing from the magical experience of opening these software boxes to get at the goodies inside, and heretofore, I've been unable to put my finger on. I think, while talking to our local support technician extraordinaire, Ted Laun, that I've finally figured out what’s been missing.

During a visit to check over my laptop’s recently flaky hard drive, Ted and I were sharing stories of the good old days, when “customer relationship management” meant a Lotus spreadsheet and “network” meant a pair of 2400 baud modems. During our conversation, he told me about an old phone system he’d worked on once that operated on a flavor of UNIX. The system was powerful yet complicated, and he worked on it infrequently enough that he always had to refer to one of the inch-thick manuals to refresh his memory on how to accomplish even the most trivial of tasks. His description of those plain, white, three-ring-bound manuals jogged something, and I suddenly figured out what's been missing from my “new toy” euphoria: huge manuals.

I seem to have lost my manual
I’m old enough to remember the days when any new development product came in a heavy box packed with floppy disks and books. The emergence of CD-ROMs as a cheap distribution medium and the Internet as a worldwide technical library of sorts has, as far as I know, killed this practice entirely. Most software today is packed in video-game-size boxes with a manual a few tens of pages thick, if there is one at all. The documentation is usually either all online or on the product’s CD.

Now that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. After all, with an Internet connection, I can easily look up virtually anything I need to know about any Microsoft development product, Java, or even Scheme, should I so desire. I don’t even need to mention how environmentally sound not printing all those manuals is.

Still, there’s just something about having an actual, heavy manual that’s somehow better. For one thing, it’s too blamed easy to lose a CD, and for another, a book is easier to carry into the bathroom with me than my laptop—although I’ve done the latter more than a few times, much to the amusement of my family. I’ve even resorted to printing out documentation on my own, just to have a hard copy of it, but it’s hardly fair to expect me (or my employer) to incur the cost of printing a vendor’s documentation, is it?

Maybe I’m being needlessly nostalgic. Certainly, I’m not being environmentally correct, but I miss lugging those huge paper beasts around with me to look over in my spare time. Just once, I want to get some development software delivered in a huge box, crammed full of paper manuals, so heavy it has to be rolled in on a dolly. That’d be pretty cool.

You CAN have too many IDEs
I think this is interesting: Borland appears to be acquiring TogetherSoft, the makers of the modeling and round-trip-engineering product Together ControlCenter, which was a nominee for Best Modeling Tool in our 2002 Readers’ Choice Awards. That’s not the interesting part though. Here it is: TogetherSoft recently acquired WebGain, the makers of VisualCafe, a fairly popular Java IDE, and another 2002 Readers’ Choice Awards nominee. Borland, of course, already has a Java IDE: the 2002 Readers’ Choice Award winning JBuilder. The company is on record saying that JBuilder is “the de facto standard for Java development.” I’ll give you three guesses what’s going to happen to VisualCafe, and the first two don’t count.

I still like feedback
Part of the idea for this “Live from LA” experiment is to get a sort of informal dialog going with members. I think the most interesting dialog I’ve had so far has been with member jeffyjones, who has cut me absolutely no slack when it comes to the anti-Microsoft rants in my last few columns. I probably deserve it, and I can’t speak for jeffyjones, but I’m enjoying it.

So, what are you waiting for? Drop me a line, or post to the discussion below, and let me know what you think. Even if you just want to tell me to go jump in a lake.

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