Of Manuals & Magazines

Remember the massive printed multi-volume documentation sets for C++ compilers in the good old days? They are long gone, and Andrew Binstock bemoans the general decline of manuals for developer tools. After an abortive attempt to move traditional comprehensive manuals from print to digital formats, documentation has generally shrunk to brief online references – if it exists at all.

Look up a feature, function, or error message and you get a paragraph or two. But if you want to know how best to use a set of features and how they are expected to fit together, your prospects are very much hit and miss. Mostly miss. For this, vendors provide forums of highly variable quality, while secretly hoping you’ll go to other communities, such as StackOverflow, and bother your fellow users who will fill in the missing knowledge without tying up an employee.

Alternatively, we might buy third-party books of variable quality for the more popular tools… at extra cost, of course. I suspect the vanishing documentation advantage of commercial software has been a factor in the great shift towards free open-source tooling, as it aggravates the sentiment “What are we paying for, exactly?” Writing proper documentation takes effort but that’s part of what I expect of a commercial software vendor. The presence or absence of a decent manual was a big factor when I went looking for a new text editor, for example.

Speaking of vanishing publications, Binstock’s own Dr. Dobb’s Journal is now one of them. Founded an amazing 38 years ago, DDJ transitioned from print to online-only some years ago. In terms of readership this transition was successful, but this year’s peak of 10.3 million views failed to generate enough advertising revenue to continue operations.

Four years ago, when I came to Dr. Dobb’s, we had healthy profits and revenue, almost all of it from advertising. Despite our excellent growth on the editorial side, our revenue declined such that today it’s barely 30% of what it was when I started. […] This is because in the last 18 months, there has been a marked shift in how vendors value website advertising. They’ve come to realize that website ads tend to be less effective than they once were. Given that I’ve never bought a single item by clicking on an ad on a website, this conclusion seems correct in the small.

Quite so. I can’t remember buying anything through website ads, either. And a target audience of developers can’t be helping: people who today mostly use free tools and rarely make purchasing decisions for their companies. Binstock notes that competitors InfoQ and SD Times now make much of their money from staging conferences rather than editorial content – another typical manifestation of the continuing decline of “intellectual property” as a source of income.

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