Remember manuals? You know, those mammoth volumes of technical information that used to come with most computer products? Whatever happened to those things, anyway? It's hardly a news flash that most products don't come with full documentation anymore. If you get a few pages of installation notes or a Getting Started guide, you can count yourself lucky. Maybe there's more extensive help on the disk or CD and perhaps even more up-to-date information on the vendor's Web page. But if you really want full documentation, you're going to have to pay extra.
There is, of course, a good argument to be made for not automatically giving every user full documentation. Many users have never cracked open a manual in their lives, and it would be a big waste of money, not to mention trees, to supply every one of them with the gigantic tomes; you'd see them piling up unread in every cubicle. As long as the person who supports that user can get all the reference materials he or she needs, there's no problem, is there? Maybe not. But some people I've heard from recently suggest there is another side to this coin. They feel that those responsible for administering and supporting complex products in network environments often find printed documentation indispensable, and they see a disturbing trend towards such products not having any manuals available at all.
A consultant who was evaluating a well-known network utility, for example, was surprised to find he could not get printed documentation for love or money.
"The only paper that accompanied the CD was the envelope that it was mailed in," he wrote. "After many attempts to use the online docs, I finally broke down and called the company. My request for the product's manuals was met with uncertainty and confusion - they acted as though I was not talking in any intelligible language. That's how estranged manuals have become."
Another reader had a similar experience with the latest release of an e-mail system his com-pany has been using for some time.
"The administrator's Getting Started guide is about a quarter-inch thick. However, there are only 12 English pages - the rest is nine other languages," he noted.
By using the administrator's guide from the previous version, he got the program installed but ran into problems that made it difficult to use the online help files.
"All I got was a message that basically said, 'This is a nice product, why don't you buy it?'. I checked the company's Web site, which has been very helpful in the past, and did not find any answers," he wrote.
There are times when only a book will do.
"I don't have any trouble with online documentation for a product whose use I know reasonably well," said an InfoWorld Electric forum participant.
"But when you're trying to learn, there is no substitute for a book. Neither the best indexes in the world, nor even full-text search is an adequate substitute for browsing a book. If I had to give up everything I've learned about the products I use when I wasn't looking for it - just by browsing - I'd be out of business tomorrow."
It would be one thing if the absence of printed manuals meant the customer saved money, but few feel that's the case.
"Most companies view documentation as a cost centre, much as they used to view technical support before they began charging (or outsourcing with revenue-sharing companies)," wrote another forum participant.
"If manuals generated revenue, then companies would be more than happy to sell them. Consider MS Press, Novell Press, Borland Press, Official Netscape Books.
"These companies have learned that documentation can make money, so why give it away? License your company name to a publishing house as an 'imprint' and laugh all the way to the bank."
This seems like one of those issues in which it's clear what people don't like, but it's harder to pinpoint what we want vendors to do. How do you think products should be documented, what are you willing to pay for, and what do you expect for free?