I’ll be honest with you; many of Microsoft’s innovations bug me. HTML help, for example, annoys me endlessly—I much prefer the old Winhelp standard. Another gripe of mine is Microsoft’s requirement that I have a CD in my drive in order to get online help while using Visual Studio (or sacrifice an entire hard drive for the documentation). Luckily, I’m not irked over this as often as I could be, thanks to MSDN Online, Microsoft’s developer Web site.

You can find summary information about the site in the following at-a-glance review.

On the Web at-a-glance review

Since this is our first use of this at-a-glance format, some explanation of its contents may be helpful. The table below summarizes the site review criteria.

On the Web at-a-glance criteria
Cost Cost to use or join the site, in U.S. dollars unless noted
Audience The experience level of the audience the site typically caters to: beginner, student, intermediate, advanced, or expert
Covers Nutshell summary of the content offered to visitors
Highs Things the site does particularly well
Lows Things the site does poorly or could improve
Features Check marks indicate features the site offers:

News—The site contains news relevant to developers.

Forums—The site hosts discussion groups.

Search—The site has a search feature.

Rating The reviewer’s overall opinion of the site on a five flag scale; more flags mean a better review

Now that you understand the at-a-glance review format, here’s a look at what I liked—and didn’t like—about MSDN Online.

Virtual library and more
By far, the biggest draw has to be the complete set of Visual Studio documentation, along with full-text searching, to be found here. At my last count, this documentation totaled 10 volumes in book form, four CDs, or two DVD-ROMs. Documentation on all Microsoft’s development tools and SDKs are included in the set. That’s a lot of information however you package it, but it’s organized fairly well. The online books are arranged in a hierarchical tree structure with a root for each book and can be browsed easily, although sometimes they are cross-linked like crazy. Searches can be as restrictive or as encompassing as you desire, although it may take a little investigation to discover how to do this. (Hint: Look for a button labeled “Show Scope.”)

But there’s more to MSDN Online than just an online library. For developers interested in pursuing Microsoft certification, MSDN Online offers certification program information. It provides a full course catalog, as well as links to various Training and Education Centers (TECs) worldwide.

Even if you aren’t looking for the solution to a particular problem, you’ll find a variety of features and regular columns on topics of interest to developers. At the time of this writing, these included BizTalk Server 2000, Object Inheritance in .NET, and the columns “DHTML Dude” and “Coding on the Edge.” Particularly interesting is the fact that MSDN Online is customizable: Visitors can create profiles indicating which kinds of information and content they’re interested in seeing each time they visit the site.

Unfortunately, once visitors get past the first page, they’ll discover that MSDN Online has tried to apply the same hierarchical structure it uses for the online books to the rest of the content on the site. The results are sometimes confusing and always frustrating. Burying a feature column under three layers of menu makes it difficult for visitors to find the column in the first place and nearly impossible to locate a second time because it’s likely moved from where it was before to a second hiding place. My advice to visitors: Bookmark often.

The wrap-up
Although MSDN Online costs no money, it’s not exactly free. Visitors will naturally have to contend with a bit of Microsoft marketing in exchange for all this information. But considering that this is a vendor site, that price doesn’t seem too steep. Overall, MSDN Online is sometimes aggravating but too valuable to miss. I give it four out of five flags.