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RIP Lotus Redbooks?

September 24th, 2007 by Corey Davis

Are you an IBM Lotus Redbooks fan? I know I am. I have downloaded and read on the order of 10-15 Redbooks this year alone. Some of them older, some of them newer. Whether it was in the form of some administrative process that I had never used or a poorly documented application development task, Redbooks have saved me more than once this year. Rumor has it that Redbooks are being discontinued.

The rumors/information about the discontinuation posted by Christopher Bryne, Carl Tyler, Thomas Duff, and Volker Weber may or may not be accurate (don’t be insulted, guys, these are rumors after all!). But what we do know is that the Redbooks center in Cambridge, Massachusetts has been shutdown. I have known this was coming for a few months now, but I did not see it as newsworthy except for sake of nostalgia and therefore did not write about it. My understanding was that the center was being moved to Westford and that Redbooks would continue to be published. Ed Brill seems to verify this — somewhat inconclusively — in his comment:

I also know we’ve done some 2008 budget planning that would include Lotus-related Redbooks. We will have to see how/what/if that comes to fruition.

In hindsight, now knowing that the center has closed, I must say that I do see that as a mistake if Lotus Redbooks continue to be published. Assuming that the center actually has/will move to Westford, this will be both good and bad. The good is that the Redbooks teams should have more direct contact with the developers. The bad is that Westford is not Cambridge which sits just across the Charles river from Boston and therefore much more desirable. No easy walks to groceries, restaurants, and entertainment will make a five- to eight-week stay in Westford much less appealing to would-be authors.

But, since we have not yet heard definitively on the future of Redbooks, what would we be left with as substitute to Redbooks in a worst-case scenario of their discontinuance?

The Replacements
The doomsday scenarios abound in the blogoshpere would have you think that there will be no more extracurricular documentation available other than the Yellowbook documentation that comes with Notes and Domino (read help NSF files). I think we can safely assume that this is not going to be the case. In fact, it may have slipped under the radar of most but IBM has been testing out a wiki style of publishing that they are calling the Redwiki. The IBM Director Best Practices Residency is Redwiki-based and this can be found in the description section (emphasis mine):

This pilot residency is an experiment to determine if Wikis are indeed a suitable tool to create and to deliver technical content of the caliber of Redbooks, but at the same time, making it easier to collaborate with a team that is located around the world. The realtime nature of the Wiki means that reviewers and editors are also be an integral part of the team.

What is the answer to that question? Can a wiki-based residency deliver Redbooks caliber material? I am skeptical that they can. In a Redbooks residency the authors are “jailed” into focusing on their subject matter. I’m not suggesting that authors are forced into working grueling hours and pulling all-nighters, but by being physically pulled away from their day-to-day roles and placed in Cambridge they are allowed to focus on the task of writing the book, and, if necessary, pulling late hours without worry. As a wiki, the authors have no excuse to leave their work location and will most likely be working from the office. Co-workers will still drop by. Servers will still crash. Applications will still require last minute modifications. All of these will distract from the task of writing. They will detract from the focus that is required to output quality, technically accurate material.

This shift from the physical world to that of online collaboration should not really be any big surprise to those of us who work with Lotus software. After all, their center of attention is collaboration, so why not use these online collaboration tools to produce Redbooks? Would this not also be a reference for Lotus collaboration software that all Redbooks (or their soon-to-be equivalents) are produced using their own products? It likely would be, but there is always a team cohesion factor that is missing in the online world. That old face-to-face meeting is very important. It personalizes the experience. It turns avatars and streaming bits of Sametime conversations into something personal. Setting in a room of authors while pounding out page after page encourages an interesting harmony in both writing style and camaraderie. Wiki posts, on the other hand, tend to lose this sense of harmonic cohesion in writing style and tend to have the feeling of a patchwork quilt. It throws the reader, in turn causing them to lose their focus and take less away from the experience. I’m not saying this can’t work, but that it will require a team of very dedicated, self-motivated, and focused individuals to write these entries. While it would be easier for most people to contribute to a wiki than to take five-weeks out of their life to move to Cambridge, I do not believe that this will truly expand the pool of contributors. The distractions of the day and lack of an environment geared towards nothing other than creating a book will decrease the overall strength of the material and thus discourage contributors from future participation and therefore shrink the pool of authors.

I know. I just spewed a lot of negative. The one idea I have seen so far that I actually like and think may work is this idea that Thomas Duff mentioned about O’Reilly Shortcuts where short, concise, targeted material is covered rather than longer, book length works. The Redbooks publications already publish shorter length material called Redpapers. The lengths vary quite a bit from less than 30 pages to a couple hundred pages, but they are not the 600, 700, or 800 page behemoths that tend to make up Redbooks. Perhaps this is how the Redwiki’s would work best. We can all usually concentrate long enough to crank out several tens of pages of concise material. I would be a fan of that. But, where does that leave Redbooks? And do we really need them?

The Redbooks Advantage
Perhaps I just have an affinity for books that is not shared by everyone else. I like to hold books and to read them. I used to work in the library at school, so maybe I’m just a book “fanboy”. Whatever you want to call it, I do see Redbooks as having an advantage over this Redwiki idea.

While Redpapers, Shortcuts, blog posts, The View articles, and the like can address specific, targeted issues in a very detailed and concise manner, there is an overall story that is lacking. And, yes, there is a story being told in most technical books. It is subtle, but it is usually about the evolution of your knowledge of the topic from beginner to advanced. While short works can take you from beginner to advanced, it is only on a subset of the product or technology. You lose the “big picture”. You may be able to learn how to precisely tweak your mail routing through connection documents, but you will not learn how mail routing truly works. You will have to hunt down another entry for that, assuming that another entry exists. But with a book, you will usually get a good overview of the entirety of mail routing including how to configure the connection documents. You get an arch taking you from start to end. You may miss out on some of the more obscure details, and that is where a wiki or article or blog post will come in handy as an adjunct to the original material, but not as a replacement.

It has been stated that the wiki may bring with it a broader global community. I argue that this is not needed and may, in fact, lead to issues with completing projects. Pick up any Redbooks publication and you will most likely find a global team of authors. Even if a majority of authors are based in the United States, many of them are not native born. The Redbooks author community is a very global community and is that way intentionally. I see this global authorship as problematic in the wiki format. Most obviously there is the timezone issue.

By working from home or the office you will work in your timezone. Many teams will have members that never or rarely spend time “together” online because of timezones. This goes back to my cohesion of teams above, something I find very important when telling a story, even if technical in nature. It is important because there is less give and more take. If you are not personally connected to the other authors, one may be less willing to heed their advice. We can not deny that, even in our usually genial Lotus community, flame wars erupt in the online world between people that would never consider such attacks in person. Just try to successfully complete a project where some of the participants are flaming one another. Good luck!

The timing of this decision is odd to me. The entirety of the ND8 development process was such an open love fest that to suddenly and secretively begin to dismantle the Lotus Redbooks organization (assuming that it is being dismantled and not simply moved) throws the iron-clad, closed-mouthed IBM organization of old right back into our face. Just when we thought they were opening up and becoming more connected with their customers and business partners, we suddenly lose a rich and valuable resource without even so much as polling the community.

While part of the appeal of Redbooks is their cost — free! — most of it is the technical expertise that goes into them. I do not see these as a marketing tool as has been suggested by some (except, of course, for the BP’s). Redbooks are self-help technical support and that is were IBM will see the cost savings in keeping them alive.

By now, if it is not obvious, I have an affinity for Redbooks. Always have. And I do not want to see them die off. That does not mean that I am not open to a new way of doing things if it can deliver material of the same or higher quality. Time will tell and I am willing to open my mind, though I do think that IBM should have waited to see if wiki’s or whatever can actually replace Redbooks.

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One Response

  1. Duffbert Says:

    Nice post…

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