An interesting recent blog from Microsoft relating that they have released (in beta) a new feature that allow you to pick up to 100 topics from the TechNet library, arrange the topics as you like, and then save the collection as a book that can be generated as a PDF (perhaps for use on a mobile device such as a Kindle) provoked the thought that writing books about Microsoft technology just became a little bit harder.
Some years ago, those who wrote books on Windows, Exchange, and other Microsoft products were content in the knowledge that every couple of years Microsoft would turn the world on its head and release a new version of an application or operating system that would be completely different in many respects to its predecessor. Documentation would be sparse and incomplete and people had no way of finding out the essential information they needed to conduct a successful deployment without buying a book. Blogs existed but were not as common or as useful as they are today.
The upshot was that each release was accompanied by a flood of books purporting to contain the secret sauce for successful deployments. Some of the books were good, based on practical experience, and really helped. Others, especially those rushed out to meet the RTM date of the product, were not as good. These books were based on beta code (that was always liable to change before RTM) and the standard of writing and editing revealed the pressures of a rush job. On the upside, the books always contained many screen shots to pad out pages and therefore provided a compelling picture-rich bedtime story for administrators.
Today’s world is completely different in many respects. Books are still published about Microsoft products and we still have a spectrum of solid material to ho-hum error-ridden text available for purchase. The difference is that books now have to compete against a flood of information that exists in TechNet and other Internet sources. Of course, it is only right and proper that Microsoft engineering groups should do the best possible job that they can to publish technical information about their products. Prior to the Exchange 2007 development cycle, I think that the Exchange group did an OK job of documenting their work but left many holes that could be written about and explored by people like me. After 2005 or thereabouts, the Exchange group made a huge effort to improve its communications and radically overhauled the output that they pushed out to the Exchange community. The information available in TechNet is enormously better than ever before and the EHLO blog has explained many pieces of the product since its inception. Other Microsoft groups do similar jobs (Windows was always good in this respect) and the overall impact has been very positive.
But it’s not just TechNet. Third-party blogs also provide much valuable information, again with a caveat that all information from blogs has to go through a sniff-test before use to ensure that it is appropriate, accurate, and pertinent. The point is that we live in a world where information availability continues to accelerate at a bewildering pace.
And so the question arises whether anyone would ever want to write a book about a Microsoft product given the competition against self-generated books created from TechNet content and the rich information available free of charge from blogs, articles, and other data published on the Internet? Why would anyone spend a year or so writing and editing a book about a topic when the content ages rapidly and might be out-dated soon after publication? After all, the vast majority of authors never get rich from writing technical books and the amount per page that is eventually earned is probably well below the minimum wage in many countries. After 14 books, I speak with some authority on this point!
The answer is that some people like to write and find the process of explaining technical topics to be a worthwhile even compelling activity. Over the years, I have told potential authors that I write on the basis that “a page a day keeps the editor away” and that approach works for me, even when writing the 400,000 word monster that Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out became. Others sit down at their desk and write and write to turn out a book as quickly as possible whereas I am more of a slow burner. No one knows what the state of technical writing will be in the future and we might all enjoy a new way of information dissemination and learning and even with the competition from TechNet (and long may it continue to improve in quality and quantity), I’m pretty sure that the future evolution of technology will provide much for authors to write upon – at least in the next few years.