My first impressions with Safari Books Online

I have never hidden that I’m a fan of the so-called authored content: I still prefer a well-edited guide to a blog post or a Wiki entry, evne though I’m the first to write blog entries to document issues and common problems, mostly out of lack of time and, honestly, laziness.

Given this, when I’m planning to work on a new technology or technique, I used to roam to O’Reilly’s website and buy myself some e-books to read on the subject. More than once, this saved me from having to spend hours and hours googling for up-to-date content on the topic. At least once, this let me complete overnight a task I was failing to complete, after two weeks — it had to do with flex and bison and most of the guides out there seemed to relate to their “grandparents” lex and yacc; the solution was much easier to implement once I read flex & bison by John Levine since it provided me with the actual, up-to-date syntax.

Two months ago, I reviewed how much I spent during 2011 in O’Reilly ebooks and … I was quite upset: over €200 in less than six months, with most of the books being one-time reference or something quite near. So I finally decided to bit the bullet and I bought a yearly subscription to the Safari Books Online Library service. Thanks to the fact that I’m basically always connected to some network, and even more important, I’m always connected when I’m working on some new technique, having a whole lot of books, not limited by either my choices or publisher, makes it cheaper in the books — and hopefully my accountant can record the expenses down in my freelancer’s balance.

You might already guess that, since I’ve not been keeping up with writing blog posts lately, I was quite busy with my work stuff (to which I had to add some personal stuff, some very good, some very bad), so I gave the service a run for its money with some of the projects I’ve been following. I have to say that the selection of books is quite good indeed, even though sometimes it is difficult to find an updated book, simply because nothing new is written on the topic, causing the old stuff to be obsoleted early, when the technology is moving fast, which is the case for most of the Free Software-related writings — a different story applies to stuff like Microsoft SQLServer, even though that one also changed quite a bit between one version and the other lately, but that’s enough for another story.

There are three main interfaces to the Library that I tried: the standard website, the mobile one and the iPad-specific application. As far as I can tell, there is no Android application yet, which makes me somewhat lucky for having an iPad instead of an Android-based tablet — and for those wondering, it was part of a project for a customer that needs to run on it, thus why I bought it in the first place.

The main website is somewhat usable; on the other hand it can create a bit of confusion especially for what concerns the difference between searching and filtering down the search, but at least it provides a quick way to find about anything you need. The mobile interface is definitely more limited, and especially on a space-constrained screen such as the HTC Desire HD’s (my newest phone) it isn’t exactly making me happy to search for something.

The iPad application, instead, seems to have been designed to be much more immediate than the mobile website… if it hadn’t its share of painful bugs and mis-features. For instance, if you’re looking for something particular in the table of contents, you’re out of luck, as it doesn’t get you to the right place in the book for the selected entry, but rather to the nearest “section”, i.e., at the HTML file that includes the entry you selected. But what bugs me the most is that, even though the service uses HTTP and is generally lightweight, the application refuses to connect if you’re Internet-bound via 3G network, only working via WiFi.

Overall, the service looks convenient to me, but I’ll reserve to say something more once a few months have passed. In the mean time I’ll be hoping that an Android application will be released, and that the iPad one will start supporting 3G connections, to make the whole experience more.. natural.

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