Are tech manuals going the way of the dinosaur?

Granted, electronic technical materials are cheaper, easier to update and save scores of trees, but try highlighting a CD-ROM during a train trip into work. Whether users like it or not, electronic materials are here to stay for the AS/400.

The move towards electronic media such as CD-ROMs and downloads can be seen as both embracing the benefits of emerging technology and being environmentally conscious. It can also be seen as a savvy financial move. (At one time, IBM was reportedly the second largest publisher in the world next to the U.S. government).

"IBM has effectively gotten out of the publishing business," said AS/400 expert Al Barsa Jr., president of Barsa Consulting Group in Purchase, N.Y.

IBM began this shift in the early '90s with the release of V2R3, which contained a software library of CD-ROMs. "One huge benefit was the portability of it. You can get the information on a few CDs instead of five feet of manuals," said Gerald Barry, an IBM senior software engineer who works with user technical information for the AS/400.

Now users (and anyone for that matter) can download technological material in PDF format from IBM's Web site. Boxes are shipped with a CD-ROM library of technical information. Internal help functions linked to Big Blue's online Information Center. In fact, less than 10% of technical material is paper according to Barry. However, some paper will always be necessary for getting the system started and for government-mandated documentation.

Electronic delivery has even helped keep the price of the operating system down because big, bulky books don't have to be printed or shipped, Barry said.

Marcia DeRosia of American Health Care Software Enterprises, which uses the AS/400, cites the "easy access to resource information" and saving trees as benefits of electronic media over paper. Though paper manuals may go the way of the dodo bird within the next 20 years, they are still needed now. "There are still a lot of users with no PC's and in an environment where education on how to use softcopy is nil," DeRosia said.

Yet not all users are as positive about the change as DeRosia. Barry only describes the reception to electronic media as "fairly positive." "It's a generational thing," he said referring to the older image of the AS/400 user.

"But in the old days, sometimes manuals got locked away in a room and people forgot they were there," Barry said. Users also had to contend with sharing limited numbers of books rather than being able to download their own copy.

So how do you prefer your technical material: paper or electronic? What do you see as the benefits of versus the other? Let us know what you think, e-mail Ed Hurley, assistant news editor

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