Item Description: O'Reilly's Safari Bookshelf is an online service for reading books from O'Reilly and other publishers
Review Synopsis: Safari has saved me time and money. The pros outweigh the cons.
O'Reilly's Safari Bookshelf
As a huge fan of O'Reilly's CD Bookshelf collections, I was excited when O'Reilly announced the Safari Bookshelf. Online documentation is a winner with me and my co-workers. I am not saying that I do not like paper books. I have an entire 7' bookshelf full of technical books. Two of the shelves are dedicated entirely to O'Reilly books. So, I can identify with the common claims: "paper books are tangible," "you can flip through a paper book," and "you can carry a paper book with you." Therein lies a major problem I have found with paper books, weight. When one cycles to work, it becomes difficult to carry more than a couple books. There is also the problem of keeping multiple editions. Older editions regularly have information the newer editions do not. With that said, online documentation has become a staple in my daily referencing. Whether it's books on CD-ROM, man pages, online forums, or Google, I spend a lot of time online looking for documentation.
To get the review started, we'll walk through Safari and its functionality. The MY SAFARI page is the user's home page on Safari. It's the first page seen after login. At any time, MY SAFARI is available via a menu at the top of the page. With the exception of MY ACCOUNT and HOME, the MY SAFARI page summarizes the other pages available on the menu: MY RECENT PAGES, MY BOOKSHELF, BOOKMARKS, NOTES, PUBLIC NOTES, MY RECENT SEARCHES, NEW THIS WEEK, and TOP BOOKS.
Entries from the last few days are shown for the each summary's associated section. Caching recent pages is quite handy when leaving unexpectedly, losing the browser window, etc. While MY RECENT PAGES, MY BOOKSHELF, and MY RECENT SEARCHES may be self-explanatory, NOTES, PUBLIC NOTES, and BOOKMARKS may not. When reading a book from the bookshelf, the user can request a bookmark for the section being viewed. Then at any point the user may return to the section in the book, long after it has rolled off the MY RECENT PAGES list. The system also allows notes to be set for a section. A note is like a bookmark except user-supplied text is stored with the note. I have found myself using notes instead of bookmarks as I can remind myself why I bookmarked the section. This is a work-around for one of the issues I mention below; bookmarks mark entire sections rather than "pages" in the book. Another useful feature related to NOTES is PUBLIC NOTES. PUBLIC NOTES allows the user to save a note with an entry in a book and make it public for the world to see. I've found this *very* useful to share information with co-workers. To me, it's like sending a link to something I've found via Google. NEW THIS WEEK shows books that have been added to Safari in the last week. TOP BOOKS shows the highest ranking books on Safari.
Clicking on the section title for each summary will display an extended history (or the full listing in the case of finite sections, such as the MY BOOKSHELF, BOOKMARKS, NOTES, and PUBLIC NOTES). In addition to storing recently accessed information, Safari allows users to search for information using the Advanced Search utility. The Advanced Search utility offers standard search features such as boolean logic, quotes, and all/exactly/at least one search options. The search can be limited to the user's bookshelf, rather than searching the entire Safari Bookshelf. The Advanced Search can also search via year, author, ISBN, or select publishers. When viewing books, the items on the screen change very little. The bar down the left side of the screen becomes a table of contents in a directory tree format. (One of the features of the site I just noticed when writing this article is that the user has the ability to hide the bar.) The entire book is published on the site, copyrights, credits, and all. At the top and bottom of each page are next and previous page buttons. There are also print, email, add note, and add bookmark buttons.
What to Like.
The entire site is searchable. The searches are across all sections of the site unless specifically limited in the advanced search. Even results from multiple editions of books are returned. One of my reasons for not retiring older editions of books, as I mentioned earlier, is that all too often valuable information is left out of newer editions. Preview paragraphs are available for every page of each book. These make great teasers and help in deciding whether or not to add a book to your bookshelf. Safari has a very user-friendly interface. The intuitive navigation makes logging on, finding information, and logging off a breeze. The selection of books is steadily growing; 1352 books were available at time of writing. What does this mean to me? I have access to my choice of 1300+ books anywhere I have a connection available. That is a very powerful statement and the main reason I've found Safari so useful. And if a paper copy must be had, it's just a click and purchase away; A Buy Print Version button is available on every page of the book being read.
What to Consider.
These are things I think the site is lacking or could enhance a bit. The first thing to notice is the insecure login. The login should be secure. Someone could easily eavesdrop and obtain a username and password. The MY ACCOUNT section of Safari is secure, but that is irrelevant if someone can watch the login. The configurability is limited. I would like to twiddle the colors, expirations of MY RECENT stuff, and turn the nodelets off/on. (By nodelets I am referring to the boxes down the right side of the screen. Slashdot.org and Perlmonks.org are examples of configurable sites.) Being able to turn off nodelets is a nice feature for users on tight bandwidth. I have heard other Safari users discuss the duration of books on the bookshelf. Once a book has been added to a users bookshelf, it's there for a month. It is easy to see both sides of the issue. Users should not add books and then remove them five minutes later. The previews are there to help decide whether or not a book will be useful. And yet, when I need to look something up quickly, it's a difficult decision to add a book or not; once a slot's gone, it's gone. Above, I mentioned that bookmarks mark the chapter/section, not subsection and paragraph. I started using notes so I could narrow down the place I was bookmarking. I have a limited amount of web development knowledge, but it seems to me marking a specific position on the page would be technically challenging considering that each chapter/section is presented in HTML. The same problem is true for notes.
By far the pros outweigh the cons on Safari. The only 'What to Consider' item I consider a *real* let-down is the insecure login. The other items are features that can be done without or worked around. One way to fix the quick lookup would be to add a floating slot that expires after a couple days. I've found the Safari service to be *very* useful for day to day work. I stay logged in throughout the day. Of course, it seems to be attracting more people to ask me questions since I so readily have answers. Safari is saving me money in a big way. No longer do I have to purchase a book for a short term project, nor do I have to worry about purchasing a book when a new edition is coming out in four months. With technology changing rapidly, keeping up-to-date copies of my most used books can be expensive. It is also worth mentioning that saving paper means saving trees, which is beneficial to everyone. It is no wonder Safari has quickly become one of my major resources.
Conway Perl Mongers