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July 2, 2012

The Pathetic Manual

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

O the dratted manual, scourge of technology.

Way back when, we once cursed the manual. It was useless. It was written in Greek or Chinese. It’s index, if it had one, was obviously from another book.

Little did we know that as we cursed the manual, it was rapidly going out of style.

Back when manuals were included with the software — which, by the way, explains the size of the box — they were sometimes good and sometimes horrid. The determination really depended on what you wanted from the manual.

As a nerd, I wanted nerdy information and references. I enjoyed that Borland Turbo C came with a hefty set of manuals — almost 14 pounds worth. I hung onto them for years because they were great references.

My first laser printer came with a 3-inch thick manual that listed all the printer codes and printer language. That was because, back in that day, you often had to write your own printer driver, or at least supply those codes to every program you used so that you could print.

Manuals weren’t always references. Some people wanted to learn how the program worked. That was the original problem with computer manuals.

Software companies developed programs. They paid programmers a lot of money to pound out good code. And you could make a ton of money. But the money was in the code, not in the manual. That was an afterthought, and something that logically couldn’t be done anyway until the software was ready anyway. So the manual failed on several levels:

* It had to be done early, so it was naturally inaccurate. (No software publisher was going to hold their code for the manual — especially because new software was either notoriously tardy or buggy.)

* It was done by someone who knew the program too well. Often the computer programmer wrote the documentation, which is why it was so terrible; the programmer figured everyone else had his knowledge. Also, the programmer, or whoever was stuck with the task, really didn’t want to write the manual anyway. It was a burdon.

* They figured no one would read the thing anyway, relying instead upon phone support. (That turned out to be a mistake: A good manual, or well-written book, saves a lot of tech support time.)

But what really killed off the manual was cost.

I remember attending a meeting a Microsoft. There were people attending who actually wrote the old DOS manual. The thing that stuck with me the most was, “a penny a page.” That’s how much the manual added to the product cost. So Microsoft had an incentive to write short, quick manuals anyway.

Eventually the manual disappeared. Its remnant is found in the program’s Help system, which is often just copied to the Internet. So when people write me, they thank me for the books. They lament that there just isn’t any documentation out there, and I must agree. In fact, there really never was!

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