In the beginning was the word. And thanks to Guttenberg, the word was often enclosed in a glossy book and sold for $49.95 at my local computer store. The noble computer book with a shelf-life of six months was the perfect solution for a piano with a missing wheel. Computer books (part of the discipline of book-learnin’) are an increasingly endangered species. Sales of computer books have been off by 8 to 10% year over year for a decade, a trend that shows no sign of slowing.
Still, I miss old-school, printed computer books. It wasn’t so much what they contained, as what they quantified. Using the Rumsfeld model, a nice fat computer book helps me quantify the unknown unknowns. As I tackle a new body of knowledge – say a new language or IDE – the unknown unknowns are infinite. As soon as I have that book in my hand, the unknown unknowns turn into known unknowns. I now know how much I don’t know, and the table of contents is my new best friend – whether I read the book or not. It is hard to beat stretching out at the cottage with a refreshing beverage and the latest tome on source code analysis.
But software developers don’t typically think in linear ways. While many of us are college or university trained, in spite of years of classroom training we run away from learning new knowledge in the old school way. Developers search for the answer to their current problem, rather than accumulating knowledge for its own sake. They listen and watch communities, RSS feeds and blogs for trends. They look for on-line videos, podcasts, newsletters, and magazines. They may even find a book in PDF, and print out a few pages that they want to use for reference.
The challenge for technology companies is to make our collection of facts, tools and interfaces accessible without binding it all up in a single document with a cover. Wikis, on-line API tutorials, developer communities, and a host of other information bits need to replace the old book model.
Of course, it’s hard to argue with Groucho Marx, when he said “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”