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Order Out of Chaos

The Beauty of Hyperlinked Documents
(and the Future of Computer Books)

(This document last revised May 18, 1997)
Copyright 1997. Bruce A. Epstein. All Rights Reserved.

"The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated."
-- Mark Twain, speaking on behalf of books

"You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole system's out of order!"
-- Al Pacino in "...And Justice for All", speaking to the World Wide Web

"If the medium is the message, choose the right medium."
-- Bruce Epstein speaking on behalf of Hypertext

With web-based content growing like kudzu, why haven't computer books gone digital? Ironically, to date, the web has prolonged the preeminence of printed books. Amazon.com and other web-based bookstores have made it easier to obtain books, while the slop permeating the web has probably increased resistance to other electronic publications. Users are retreating from the chaos of the web to the comfort of dead-tree tomes, just as software publishers are phasing out printed manuals.

At their September 1996 Users Conference, Macromedia proposed offering documentation solely via their web site, and not shipping printed or electronic, documentation. The consensus (as indicated by the audible gasps) was, "You've got to be kidding!" Only nine months later, the on-line approach appears substantially less insane. It will be feasible once the web is accessible to all computer users.

Even though printed books' days may be numbered in the thousands, they are numbered nonetheless. Inertia will give way to superior electronic documentation as publishers determine how to get paid for on-line information and authors master the new medium. The web currently represents chaotic access to anarchistic information. By providing integrated access to structured information, authors can exploit the strengths of hypertext while avoiding the common pitfalls on the web. Content providers who fail to adapt will watch their profits dwindle, even as the information market booms.

Like all authors, I have a desire to both inform and impress the readership at large. I wanted to write a book about Macromedia Director (the dominant multimedia authoring tool), and struggled to develop a satisfactory approach. Multimedia encompasses several disciplines, each one deserving in-depth coverage. But information vital to some readers is of no interest to others, and the typical multimedian has no time for thousand-page books. I decided to publish some of the material on my web site instead. Organizational issues that vexed me for months simply disappeared once the material was liberated from the static and linear confines of a printed book.

HTML-based publications have numerous major advantages:

Mastering your Domain

My web site's primary purpose is to sell my utilities, but it is laden with information for Director developers. By demonstrating how my products address common problems, the site can reconcile my goal (selling software), with the user's (solving their problems). The site also answers pre-sales and technical support questions, reducing phone calls substantially while increasing sales. Even if readers do not make an immediate purchase, they will return frequently, and refer others to my site.

The foundations of my site are the glossary (which also serves as an index), the library of technical notes, and a series of FAQs. The remainder is information about my products, including complete documentation in HTML format, which refers to the glossary and technical notes frequently. The goal is to create a publication that adapts to the reader's skill level and learning style. No more agonizing over the appropriate depth or order of coverage! I actually cover more material than I otherwise would in-line, and yet the user can read it faster, as they choose which links to skip or pursue.

A useful electronic publication should have a definite structure, and a starting point, such as an FAQ or table of contents. My Needs Analysis FAQ quickly directs the user towards solutions to common problems. My eventual goal is to build a cross between an expert system and a reverse dictionary. The user will peruse a list of topics or questions, and follow the links to a solution.

When designing a site or other electronic publication, bear in mind:
After several months of occasionally diligent work, the foundation of my site is now firmly in place. Many basic technical notes have been completed, and the glossary is almost done. Information about the company, licensing, ordering, and product pricing is in place. Most of my product manuals have been converted to HTML format, and I can easily add new features, product descriptions, examples, technical notes and FAQs atop the existing foundation. I am ready to begin publicizing my site via other sites, discussion groups and a company mailing list.

During a recent tech support call, I proudly referred the customer to the new site, and asked if they had read the HTML documentation. "I'll read it as soon as I print it out," he replied. Maybe Mark Twain was right.

-- Bruce A. Epstein

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Copyright 1997. Bruce A. Epstein. All Rights Reserved.