The TechnøGrouch
Where crappy technology gets what it deserves


The Brilliance and Tarnish of PDF Manuals

by Jonathan Stars

Not that long ago, when computer users sent files to each other, they often ran into problems when the receiver didn't have the same program and/or font types on their computer.

In 1990 Adobe invented a very clever technology called Portable Document Format (PDF). It took awhile to catch on, but it allows the sender to make a document that looks the same on any standard computer system regardless of the application in which it was created - as long as you have the free reader. Very cool!

Of the many uses for this technology, my favorite is that I can build a contract or an invoice for a client that can't be changed. You can also use it to create documents that you intend to have changed, either in their entirety or only in specific places.

Somewhere along the line software manufacturers realized that the PDF reader software was ubiquitous enough that they could stop printing manuals and just send along a PDF of their manual.

There are a lot of advantages to this approach for software manufacturers. First of all, as you might guess, is cost. They don't have to print the manual, and the cost of shipping the software is reduced dramatically because the manual has often been the heaviest part. (Of course the box still takes up the same amount of space on the shelf in stores - and in the landfills. They do have to make sure that disc looks like it's worth something after all.)

Did I mention that the price of the software didn't go down when they stopped providing printed manuals? Did I mention that the price of software didn't even pause in its steady rise? No. The real driving force behind the switch to the read-it-on-your-computer or print-it-yourself manual was profits.

Not having a printed manual opens up the option to buy the software as an Internet download. That means you can hear about some neat new software, find an online vendor, pay for it and have it running on your machine in minutes without even leaving your house or waiting for a delivery service. That's a real deal for the manufacturer who doesn't even have to burn a disc or make the box. And they don't have to pay for shipping, shelf inventory or a percentage of the sale to stores. Did I mention that the cost of the software didn't go down when they started selling online?

Manual Updates
The manufacturer can cheaply update the manual to include any last minute changes or with each update as they find and fix bugs. That's something that would be impossible with a stack of paper manuals. But my experience has been that they simply don't do that. Instead, they provide you with a separate PDF that lists all the changes - if they decide to provide you with any of the changes at all. Now you have to look in two places for a feature you need explained. Inconvenient? Yes! You see, adding some text is not as simple as inserting it and creating a new PDF. The Table of Contents and Index all need to be updated, since any inserted text changes the page numbers. I've even seen PDF manuals that were three versions old and the changes were in a second file. Apparently updating manuals just doesn't seem to be a good place to spend any of the extra money they're making.

You might be thinking how convenient it would be for a manufacturer to provide their manuals online. That way, they could just update the manual in one place and you wouldn't need to download anything. And indeed, many of them do just that. However, I haven't seen these online manuals being updated any more than the ones on disk are. Again, I think it's because of the limitations of the PDF format and problems of updating the Table of Contents and Index. Indeed, as an author of books on FileMaker Pro, after I write each new edition, I dread updating the Index. For my 500 page book, it takes almost 50 hours! With the cutbacks we see at many companies, your updated PDF file is just not high on the list of priorities. But with better search capabilities in the PDF reading software, it can make an index almost unnecessary. Which brings us to...

In a PDF you can do a quick search for words or phrases without having to thumb through a paper index. I have no complaint about that! I've seen some pretty abysmal indexes in printed manuals and even third party software books. Some were so bad it made the book useless. The PDF search feature really gives you a shot at finding what you're looking for. Of course it still can't read your mind, so you need to have some idea of what you're looking for. And if you not familiar with the terminology used by that software, the search can be more than a little frustrating. The mind reading thing is in the future. I can't wait!

True Disadvantages
Now that I've told you about some of the disadvantages of the advantages of PDF manuals, here are some of the unadulterated disadvantages.

Have you ever tried to work with a program while reading the PDF manual on the computer screen? Unless you have a lot of screen real estate, you have to keep switching between the PDF reader and the program the manual is about. Not a big problem if you have a photographic memory - which I don't. On the other hand, if you have a photographic memory, once through the manual outta give you everything you need anyway. In my case I use two computer screens, unless I'm working on a laptop.

Here are some other disadvantages (as of 2007):

* You can't read it in the bathroom.
* You can't turn down the corners of important pages.
* You can't add bookmark stickers on the edge of the pages.
* You can't highlight anything.
* You can't write your own notes in the columns.

Well, I'm glad to report that there been some changes since 2007. Most of those disadvantages have been rectified. Of course you can always print the manual. At the price of inkjet cartridges, it would be cheaper to just go out and buy a book about the software. (Actually, it's cheaper to buy a new printer than a new cartridge, but that's another story.) And if you buy a book, doesn't that mean that the cost of the software just effectively went up $30 or so? Did I mention that the price of the software didn't go down when they stopped printing the manuals?

You may not know this, but some software manufacturers still print their manuals in small quantities, and you can buy them at an additional cost. I bought the Pro Tools manual from music software and hardware manufacturer Digidesign, and consider it a particularly wise investment.

What I propose
Eventually a lightweight device will be available that will hold the PDFs and allow highlighting and annotation. (Here we are just a few years after I wrote this and we have the Kindle and the iPad. I don't own either one yet. Not only do they provide many of the features I proposed, but updates can be provided to your manuals as soon as they're available - as long as the manufacturer will take the time to post them.) In the far future you'll be able to just "know" how to run everything as if you were an expert. But it will probably be an add-on option. The standard option will be the PDF file, of course. And if they're going to provide us with something that is more convenient for them and less convenient for us, shouldn't they give us a price break? Did I mention...? Oh, never mind.

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