After Hours

Using Microsoft eBook technology to create portable documentation

Microsoft's eBook standard is a handy way to create project documentation that's both easy to maintain and easy to read on any platform, right down to a Pocket PC. Best of all, the reader is free, and so is the creation plug-in for Word.


Recently the online version of the BBC News ran an article that compared the wizards and witches of Hogwart’s with Web designers. The more that I thought about the article, the more comparisons came to mind. For example, the average person has no idea of what we do and how we do whatever it is that we do. Also, like wizards, Web designers, after a fashion, have their own spells (algorithms, objects, functions, and documentation).

Actually the only real difference is that the wizards have their own spell books, or grimoires, if you prefer. While not necessarily well behaved, these leather-bound tomes contain all of the documentation relating to a particular subject, for example, necromancy.

Web designers, on the other hand, avoid documentation, preferring to take their secrets to the grave. This phenomenon is not only unique to Web designers; it is prevalent throughout all branches of programming. This was superbly illustrated by that little difficulty that we all had with two-digit years a while back.

Every individual and organization has its own unique way of handling documentation and notes. A friend of mine carries around a little notebook in which he writes all of his ideas and examples of how to deal with programming difficulties. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to lose little notebooks, so this method isn’t going to work for me or my clients.

I decided to try a twenty-first century solution. What I really need is a standard way to keep documentation together in a single file that can be displayed on various Windows platforms. I need something that can also be used to organize the massive amounts of documentation that go along with the Web order entry system that I work on. What I need are eBooks.

What are eBooks?
In their simplest form, eBooks are electronic representations of books that are viewed in a software reader. Pages can be "turned," places can be "marked" and text can be searched. Of course, just like some stories are longer than others, not all eBooks are actually book length. Imagine Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi and Edgar Allen Poe's The Cask of Amontillado, both of which are available in the University of Virginia's eBook Library.

Readers and writers
The unfortunate thing about eBooks is that, like recordable DVDs, there are multiple competing standards. And as with recordable DVDs, these competing formats mean you have to decide which standard to adopt. Fortunately the number of competing eBook standards is limited to just two big names: Adobe and Microsoft. Both of their formats have their own pluses and minuses.

While the reader software is a free download for both Adobe and Microsoft, it was the creation software that was the tiebreaker for me. Microsoft's eBook creation software is a free add-on to Word 2000, while Adobe's software isn't free.

Getting started
The first step in the process of creating an eBook is downloading the various software add-ons. I needed the reader for both the desktop and Pocket PC platforms, and the creation add-in for Word 2000. And while I'm at it, I'll add the Text-to-Speech Engine for the desktop reader. The URLs of the various files are shown in Table A.
Table A
Download Languages URL
Microsoft Reader for Desktop and Laptop PC English, French, German, Italian, Spanish http://www.microsoft.com/reader/downloads/pc.asp
Microsoft Reader for Tablet PC English, French, German http://www.microsoft.com/reader/downloads/tablet.asp
Microsoft Reader for Pocket PC English, French, German, Italian, Spanish http://www.microsoft.com/reader/downloads/ppc.asp
Microsoft Text-to-Speech Package English, French, German http://www.microsoft.com/reader/downloads/tts.asp
Read in Microsoft Reader (creation) n/a http://www.microsoft.com/reader/downloads/rmr.asp
Download URLs for Microsoft eBook readers and writers

Installation
The installation of the Microsoft Reader software is simply clicking on the downloaded files, agreeing to the licensing agreement and activating the reader. Once the reader plug-in for Word 2000 is installed, a Microsoft Reader icon is visible in Word (Figure A).

Figure A
The Microsoft eBook creation plug-in installs itself into the Word 2000 toolbar.


Creating an eBook
Really, all you do to create an eBook is load a Word document and press the little "r" icon on the Menu bar. This works for most documents, but some, specifically those with tables and images, may require some manipulation. In order for the document to display correctly on various devices (including a Pocket PC), it is a good rule of thumb to pay close attention to width.

Larger documents can also present something of a challenge—not because the conversation plug-in has any problem with large files, but rather that a table of contents is needed to zero in on a specific subject.

To create an eBook with a table of contents first make sure that the document's various headings are, in fact, headings. If the document contains both headings and subheadings, it is important that the text style reflects this hierarchy; otherwise, the results won't be what is expected. Once the document is correctly formatted, click Insert, Index And Tables, and then click on the Table Of Contents tab (Figure B).

Figure B
Create a table of contents for any long document that you're turning into an eBook.


The final steps in creating an eBook are to save the document and click on the reader icon. Figure C shows the pop-up for the eBook creation; it is the last chance to make any changes to title or author. It is also the place to decide on the cover for the eBook, like the image of an ornate leather bound tome, or the default cover.

Once you make any last minute changes and click OK, Word creates the eBook. Any device running the Microsoft Reader can read the finished eBook; although, only the desktop versions can read the book aloud.

Figure C
eBook creation pop-up in Microsoft Word


A few years ago eBooks were touted as the next big thing. Unfortunately the folks touting eBooks didn't seem to realize that most people won’t curl up in bed and read a computer screen. This doesn't mean that eBooks should be ignored. The fact that they can be easily distributed, and read on a variety of platforms, makes eBooks a powerful tool for jobs like creating project documentation.

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