FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

Adobe Creative Team.
Adobe FrameMaker 6.0.
(Classroom in a Book).
San Jose, Calif.: Adobe Systems, 2000.
distributed by Peachpit Press (Berkeley, Calif.) and Addison-Wesley (Reading, Mass.).
paper, 391 p. with CD-ROM, ISBN 0-201-70014-x, US$45.00.
Adobe: http://www.adobe.com/adobepress/main.html

Adobe FrameMaker 6.0.

Despite all the publicity that surrounds Desktop Publishing packages such as Quark XPress and Adobe InDesign and PageMaker, when it comes to producing high-quality, long and structured documentation, only one program can really be taken into consideration: FrameMaker. Created many years ago by Frame Technology, it established itself as a competitor of the then unrivalled Interleaf Publisher, and, to a lesser extent, of Ventura Publisher. These were the days when Quark XPress and PageMaker were in their infancy and heavy-duty applications for laying out complex books, manuals or references with extensive cross-referencing, indexing and table of contents ran mainly on UNIX. For a long time in the early nineties, the future of FrameMaker was uncertain until Adobe recognised the value of its extraordinary feature set and power. The company added many new capabilities to version 5 and 6, including direct PDF generation, HTML and SGML support, and general Internet integration. Thus, the program can now be used create top-quality documents, both in printed form or online. It can even be useful for building hypertext help systems.

This "Classroom in a Book" manual is part of a training series written by Adobe covering many of the company's own products. It consists of individual lessons in which the various techniques and features are explained through step-by-step instructions and operations on files, supplied on an accompanying CD-ROM. As such, the solution is very appealing for those who want to acquire a hands-on experience of the program, rather than simply become familiar with the capabilities on a theoretical level.

So, what's in the book? It obviously is not meant to replace the official manual which ships with the software, thus it does not cover the complete set of features. Instead, it concentrates on those qualities and characteristics that make FrameMaker unique. The initial chapters deal with basic tasks, such as exploring the windows and familiarising oneself with the main interface elements. Adobe has not changed the program's look and feel as much as, say, it has done when it acquired PageMaker from Aldus Corporation. Users of other Adobe products, therefore, will find that controls and commands are not always where they expect them. However, this is not a bad thing, for the original designers of FrameMaker came up with a near-perfect setup, which obviously did not need to be changed over the years.

Other chapters are dedicated to paragraph and character formats, rulers, formatting techniques, colours and tints, document layout, headers, footers and graphic integration. When comparing FrameMaker to other DTP applications, what really shines is the unmatched handling of tables, variables (automatic cross-references, for examples), footnotes, conditional text, and indices, as well as its ability to consolidate several documents into one book (retaining all progressive numbering schemes, cross-references, entries for table of content, etc.) The lessons are well-structured, with clear and concise explanations, complemented by useful screen shots (taken under Mac, Windows and UNIX operating systems) demonstrating the results of actions or helping in understanding how to enter values in the many dialog boxes that make up the program.

In about 390 pages, the staff at Adobe has done a wonderful job at removing some of the intimidating aspects that learning a program as complex as FrameMaker might provide. Look for more titles in the series. - Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Michael Bremer.
UnTechnical Writing: How To Write About Technical Subjects and Products So Anyone Can Understand.
(UnTechnical Press books for writers series)
Concord, Calif.: UnTechnical Press, 1999.
paper, 227 p., ISBN 0-966-99490-6, US$14.95.
UnTechnical Press: http://www.untechnicalpress.com

Michael Bremer. UnTechnical Writing.

Let's face it: whether we want it or not, on a daily basis we let more and more technology into our homes. All sorts of electric and electronic devices are supposed to make our life easier; computers are said to empower us to a level we have never experienced before. One problem is, most of such objects come with instructions that, although meant to provide the user with an understanding of their functionality, often fall short of their intended goal. Whether a terse leaflet included with a hair-dryer, or a 1500-page manual about a complicated 3-D shoot 'em up game, the information included is often poorly put together, with unclear steps or examples and confusing illustrations; or perhaps it has been written in such a way that it is difficult to follow for anybody but the most avid technology freak. Writing technical manuals for non-technical people has, without doubt, become a technique (an art, even?) in its own right.

It is, therefore, extraordinary that, until last year, nobody thought about writing a book such as Untechnical Writing. Michael Bremer, the author, introduces the cover title in this way:

"I've coined the term UnTechnical writing to refer to the writing about technology that is intended to be comfortably read and understood by the nontechnical consumer audience, as opposed to the existing term, technical writing, which has a pretty bad, even scary reputation outside of technology circles."

And let me tell you right up front that Mr. Bremer knows his trade very well. Apart from its content (which will be discussed in due course), the book is smartly presented, both in terms of appearance and style. This seems obvious, of course, considering the author's mission of documenting "the art, science and politics of writing and producing useful, useable - even enjoyable - technical books and manuals". From the design of the cover, to the sleek page layout and fonts choice and to the absolute lack of any spelling mistakes or error of pagination, referencing and other slip-ups. Clearly, Bremer himself adhered strictly to the practices he presents within the book. The result is a beautiful little book that looks technical, yet is elegant and pleasant.

Nonetheless, the presentation alone would not warrant a trip to the local bookshop (virtual or not) to purchase a copy, so let us examine how the contents fares.

The ten chapters cover all relevant aspects of the writing process. After a short introduction that sets the scene, the "Writer" in a general sense is examined: what are the roles, goals and attitudes, and who should be writing about technology and technical products; these are some of the questions tackled here, along with a few words on the skill set required for a successful and rewarding career.

What follows is an analysis of the non-technical reader. Becoming an effective communicator implies being aware of the needs and expectations of who is on the other end. Bremer thoughtfully examines the many ways in which different readers learn and makes us conscious of how difficult it can be for a non-technical person to make sense of even the most "obvious" assumption.

By far the longest chapter, "Untechnical Writing" takes a thorough journey through the many facets of the profession of writing: from the basic concepts of what writing actually is, to how to combat writer's blocks, handle sexist language, use humour, or deal with the specifics of hypertext or onscreen text. A final section here is dedicated to more advanced topics, including feature freeze, internationalisation and project postmortem (all of these are principally relevant to the software industry but can be useful for other contexts, too).

What follows is a discussion of the editing process, layout and graphic arts, and interface design plus two very insightful chapters on the people and politics within large and small companies, and on the philosophy of writing. Among other things, they give an insight into the human factor of working with a team, producing documentation under tight deadlines and under pressure. As someone who worked in similar environments for many years myself, I could relate to the anecdotes recounted by Bremer. What he writes could be simply regarded as common sense, perhaps, however, this is often not so 'common' as the name would suggest.

Finally, the concluding thirty pages are taken up by exhibits: sample documents which can be used as a guide or template. They include deliverable list, project breakdown, request form, contact list, fact and worksheets, checklists and other useful well-crafted forms that can help bringing a project to a successful completion, by minimizing possible misunderstanding and mishaps. Bremer kindly made these available to us, undoubtedly after refining them over the years.

The appendices are a true treasure chest, listing numerous very interesting books, publications and manuals. The serious writer is strongly advised to note down the details of these four pages and do some research prior to tackling the next UnTechnical manual. There's so much to learn from many of those resources. Perhaps one little caveat about the list is that it does not give any data about the titles: it would have been helpful if publisher and ISBN number would have been provided.

Incidentally, I personally share with the author a high respect for popular science books. Some of those mentioned in the appendix are high up in my own list of favourites, such as Lee Smolin's The Life of the Cosmos.

Overall this is a unique book. Aimed at the professional writer but also packed with general thoughts on effective communication, it is a must for anybody who writes technical stuff and a definite treat for anybody who reads it. - Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Ted Landau.
Sad Macs, Bombs and other Disasters.
Berkeley, Calif.: Peachpit Press, 2000.
paper, 950 p., ISBN 0-201-69963-X, US$34.99.
Peachpit Press: http://www.peachpit.com

Ted Landau. Sad Macs, Bombs and other Disasters.

It is hard to find compelling books covering a technical topic in a literally exhaustive way. They tend to be massive "bibles", full of facts, tables, specifications, screen shots, instructions, notes, lists and so on. Often such books are not meant to be read from cover to cover, because their contents is heavy-going. They also become outdated (at least in part) pretty quickly when the changing technology moves on and advances to new territories. However, one thing they have all in common is that they can turn out to be indispensable, especially when the subject is computer software. And so here is one of them, in all its glorious nearly 1000 pages!

If you are a seasoned Macintosh and World Wide Web user, you will probably be familiar with the name Ted Landau, or at least with the ultra-popular Web site called 'MacFixIt'. Since 1996, this site has been carrying an extraordinary amount of information on troubleshooting Macintosh applications and OS versions; over the years, it has accumulated a large quantity of data, essential to the Mac guru and novice alike. In the technical world such a repository of technical wisdom is called "knowledge base". And thus is how this book can be defined; a huge collection of everything really useful, organised according to categories.

Giving even a small fraction of what's covered would take the rest of the reviews column, so I will limit myself to giving a broad idea of its organisation.

There are three main sections, each of them with a specific goal, starting with section one, which introduces the basics of Macintosh hardware and software. It describes the various bits and pieces that one can find inside a computer: CPU, ROM, RAM, hard disk, etc. It also explains how the operating system works and what its principal components are.

Moving on, the book outlines general preventive strategies: about fifty pages of sound advice, that, if followed, could possibly make the rest of the tome redundant! The Mac OS has grown considerably in complexity and power since the early days of the Macintosh Plus and while it is still considerably less cluttered than Microsoft's Windows, it nevertheless needs to be understood to a certain extent, in order to avoid unwelcome surprises. Here's is where "Sad Macs" comes to the rescue.

Section two is called "Symptoms, Causes and Cures". The author examines, one by one, the most common (and most uncommon) problems that might occur when using a Macintosh: general system crashes, start-up difficulties, disk corruption, printing and launching problems, to mention only a handful of them. Each chapter in the section is dedicated to a specific area of computer usage, such as connecting to a network and to the Internet, upgrading to new software or utilising a laptop on the move.

The text is succinct, yet comprehensive enough to give adequate guidance for doing serious troubleshooting. It is complemented by numerous screen shots taken from many utilities, commercial programs and from the operating system itself.

Part three begins with the following words:

"Meet the Fix-Its. The Fix-Its are a collection of sixteen topics that cover the entire range of problem-solving techniques. Think of them as a set of descriptive troubleshooting tools, the metaphorical equivalent of hardware tools such as a screwdriver or a hammer."

Each of these 'fix-its' is divided into five parts: Quick Summary, When To Do It, Why To Do It, What To Do, For Related Information; it must be recognised that the author has put an enormous amount of effort into this section, documenting very well each and every step. Granted, most of the information has been probably gathered over the years from the many forums available on the Web site, so perhaps credit should be given to all the other gurus who have been involved in the collaborative process. However, this does not take anything from Landau's achievement of bringing it all together in such a valuable resource.

My suggestion is to buy this book, read through it on a regular basis even when no problems have arisen. There's hardly any aspect that has not been investigated. And while the book's strength might lie in helping fixing things, it does also an outstanding job at educating users about the real advantages of carrying out regular preventive measures. Along with the daily updates available on MacFixIt.com, Sad Macs provides a unique toolkit for the serious Macintosh user. - Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Janice Reynolds.
The Complete E-Commerce Book.
Gilroy, Calif.: CMP Books, 2000.
paper, 339 p., ISBN 1-578-20061-X, US$29.95.
CMP Books: http://www.cmpbooks.com

Janice Reynolds. The Complete E-Commerce Book.

I had long been looking for a book on e-commerce to give as a present to a friend of mine, who's trying to set up a commercial Web site, selling online lectures. He is not a geek and the book would have had to be clearly written, without assuming any prior technical knowledge (except for some jargon, perhaps) yet exhaustive, accurate and up-to-date.

When, last week, I stumbled upon Janice Reynolds' book, I was sceptical, at first. Go to any bookshop these days and you'll find yards of shelf space dedicated to books on electronic commerce. Moreover, when the word "complete" appears in the title, it often signifies that the book is either going to be a heavyweight tome, with thousands of pages and a table of content approaching fifty pages, or that it is not really so complete, after all.

Surprisingly, The Complete E-Commerce Book turns out to be as comprehensive as it can go, in view of the fact that the area of e-commerce is huge and complex, with many separate fields ranging from software engineering, connectivity, logistics, marketing, and so on.

Where the book really stands out is in providing an overall and firm understanding of the processes of creating, building and maintaining an e-commerce Web site. Alone for this, the author deserves a praise. One simply wonders how she managed to achieve this feat, considering that, in just over 300 pages, the topics discussed encompass domain name registration, merchant accounts, credit card payments, server hardware and software, backup and maintenance strategies, connectivity, firewalls, certificates, Web servers, databases, QA, Web hosting, order fulfillment and more.

Janice never writes more about a given topic than she needs to. She finds the perfect balance between giving enough background information/delivering clear explanations and keeping the work authoritative. Thanks to the informal writing style the book is a pleasure to read even from cover to cover; it outlines the life of a site from its initial conception to its completion, with a short insight into what the future of e-commerce might bring.

Throughout the text, relevant URLs are provided, so that the reader can look up this or that software tool, service company or related technology. After all, the book is about what's out there in cyberspace, and the best place to find more information is in cyberspace. Many of the same links are also listed alphabetically at the end of the book in a kind of URL directory. Finally, a handy appendix illustrating the salient components of a computer, plus a glossary and a general index complete the volume.

Not everything is perfect, however, and here I have encountered a handful of omissions which I would have not expected. For example, the discussion of operating systems and Web servers blatantly ignores anything developed by Apple Computer, despite the fact that, for all its weaknesses, the Mac OS has proven very secure and has demonstrated that, in many cases, it can stand up to any of the UNIX flavours and the Microsoft's offerings. Also, I was surprised that no mention of Mac OS X was made. This is an industry-strength operating system based on UNIX, which might still steal some 'market share' from the competitors, particularly in the Internet arena.

Moreover, some of the arguments brought forward seem very U.S.-centric, where a more international approach should have been taken. For example, I could not help but disagreeing with the paragraph on government regulation which, according to Reynolds poses a threat to the growth and freedom of the Internet. We have been through this many times, so perhaps adding the other side of the story would have made this particular section more acceptable to other audiences.

But perhaps the main shortcoming of The Complete E-Commerce Book is its lack of a bibliography. The book is so useful as a starting point that it makes you want to learn more. Thus, a good reference point to (off-line) in-depth sources of information would have been definitely a noteworthy addition. The author has demonstrated that she is capable of effective research, thus there is no excuse for this omission.

Nevertheless, Reynolds' book represents, for me, the Yahoo! of e-commerce books: start there first, then follow the links. - Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Syed Mahbubur Rahman and Mahesh Raisinghani (editors).
Electronic Commerce: Opportunity and Challenges.
Hershey, Penn.: Idea Group Publishing, 2000.
paper, 432 p., ISBN 1-878-28976-4, US$74.95.
Idea Group Publishing: http://www.idea-group.com

Syed Mahbubur Rahman and Mahesh Raisinghani. Electronic Commerce: Opportunity and Challenges.

The term e-commerce is rarely out of our newspapers: dot coms have come (and some have now gone) we are encouraged to have WAP phones and engage in B2C and B2B transactions. I found the title of this book particularly interesting as I, perhaps like many others, had forgotten that the term "electronic commerce" has a rather wider definition than today's general usage. In recent times we have been experiencing the growth of one particular branch of electronic commerce - the Internet enabled part. EDI and EFTPOS, electronic banking and other forms of electronic payment have been taking place for some time and if fax and telephone communications are included in our definition of electronic commerce, we might wonder what all the fuss has been about. Electronic commerce has been with us for much longer than we might think.

This book consists of articles from academics in Australia, America, Singapore, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Taiwan covering a wide range of subjects in the general realm of electronic commerce. The first article is by one of the editors, Mahesh S. Raisinghani. Raisinghani provides an introduction to many of the major issues current in the world of electronic commerce, drawing on current academic and business publications. This article stands well by itself as an introduction to the subject. Indeed all the articles stand well by themselves which makes it difficult to discuss this book as a whole.

The editors have grouped articles in four sections: unfortunately the division into sections was not really carried through from the Table of Contents into the body of the book. I found myself looking for links between the subject materials of successive articles - wondering, for example, what was the relationship between Lee's article on Retail Payment Systems and Poh's "Internet-Enabled Smart Card Agent Environment and Applications"? I realised that I had moved into a new section and there was no direct connection. Section headings in the body of the book would certainly have been useful and a brief editorial article setting the section into the context of the wider issues surrounding electronic commerce.

Whilst the overall quality of the articles cannot be disputed, their range of subject matter and level of approach means that a reader who is familiar and comfortable with one area may well find another intimidating. For example, Shih's article "A mobile agent computational model for best buy searching" presents a model, algorithms and a simulation environment for a mobile agent and leaves the reader with the feeling that it would be a short step to go ahead an implement such an agent - should they wish to do so. In complete contrast Dusolier and Rolin Jacquemyns' article on the challenge of the law to electronic commerce in the European Community made difficult reading. It left no desire to read further on the subject and some confusion about the overall purpose of the article - but I'm not a lawyer.

So what is the purpose of the book? Rahman and Raisinghani state that they targeted their book at policy makers, business professionals, academics and students - a wide audience. They also say that the book is "designed [my italics] to help its readers get a better grip on the opportunities and challenges in e-commerce as it affects business theory and practice in the new millennium". I fear that the target audience is too large and the articles too unconnected to achieve this aim. Academics will typically have an area of specialisation and focus closely on articles concerned with it. They may find one or two articles of particular interest and may well be familiar with the author's work (there is no indication that the articles have been published elsewhere or were commissioned for this volume). They may find the other articles interesting. For business professionals and policy makers trying to get a better grip on the opportunities and practice of electronic commerce, they will not find enough "flow" between articles in the book to provide a complete picture. They may, again, select one or two articles relevant to their own particular discipline or interest and leave the rest aside. Why would either group choose this book? How can such a wide audience cope with such a wide range of articles? Whilst I am critical of the presentation of the book, I have to add that, with perseverance I did read the whole book and do feel better informed. Particularly useful was the broader view of electronic commerce. The academic format of the articles is also useful as the bibliography gives scope for further reading.

The book would be of interest to the many universities and colleges who are running or creating e-commerce courses. Provided the scope of the course includes EDI, this book could well make an appearance as a course reader. As back up to a series of lectures it would provide students with a physically accessible source of academic articles. However, I have a thought for the publishers. I've just started another academic year and grappled, yet again, with the issue of syllabus change that must be reflected in textbooks. Each year authors rush to revise their books and publishers rush them into print - they usually arrive late. Each year the speed of technology change increases. Each year an increasing number of well-written articles become irrelevant to the "real" world. Surely we should now be moving to e-books for textbooks? - Wendy Baird End of Review


Copyright ©2001, First Monday

First Monday, Volume 6, Number 1 - 8 January 2001
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/831/740





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