The Future of Reference Books is here

Any topic of study typically has a reference text. If you are doing anything with English, it is typically the dictionary to help you get around with words. You might need to lookup a meaning, similar words, figures of speech, sample usage and much more. In my opinion, a good reference book needs to address the following:

  • A convenient and quick way to search
  • Short and concise explanation of the topic you wanted more information on
  • Short example to help you understand the concept and drill it into your head

The world is taking a decisive shift towards ebooks. There is no doubt about that. We are all used to the only thing that is a constant in this world and that is change. However, one cannot just convert a physical reference book into an eBook and expect that the experience is the same. You need to work harder on the above 3 points that I have mentioned. There could be many more points like design and advanced features like bookmarks, etc. — but that could be an endless list of points that are best left to a debate.

The proliferation of Mobile Devices and the rapidly expanding ecosystem around mobile applications meant that it was just a matter of time before the reference books adjusted themselves to this new medium. And I have been fortunate to experience one such reference book application that I am excited about and want to share it with everyone.

I was fortunate to get a version of the HTML 4 & 5 : The Complete Reference by O’Reilly Media, Inc. The book is authored by Jennifer Robbins and there is a video of how they went about authoring and packaging an existing “physical” HTML Reference book.

I took the application for a spin and here are my comments:

1) The application launches with clearly the reader in mind. Two actions are shown straightaway on the Home Screen of the application: Search and Browse. This is so apt since that is what you want to do with any reference material.

2) There is a nice Filter feature that will filter your results out for HTML4 and 5, so that you are only given the relevant results. So in case you really want to end up using this app for latest HTML5 stuff only, then simply set the filter to HTML5 only and boom, the rest is taken care of for you.

3) You can get any information for Elements, Attributes, Characters and much more. The information for any particular Element, for example, is nearly categorized into 3 Tabs : Description, Attributes and Example.

4) My favourite feature is that of the Example. This is a neat trick that the authors have employed. Since we are dealing here with the HTML and coupled with the fact that the Webkit Browser engine is within the application, you not only see the Example code but guess what, you can see it being rendered and run right within the application. Text has been brought alive — it is as simple as that.

For the technical folks: This app is written using PhoneGap as the video mentions. So pure HTML, CSS and JS is likely at play here with just the final native packaging for the iPhone distribution. I like that actually.

A few things that I have observed:

  • The application is a bit sluggish. Maybe got to do with the loads of data that is probably present in a reference of this sort. But given that the physical book runs in upwards of 600-700 pages, no one should complain 🙂
  • I would have liked an ability to bookmark some elements, attributes and related information for quick reference.
  • Sharing the code snippet via email with someone would have been great too.

All in all, this application is going to be regularly used for any reference since it is completely offline. I strongly recommend to give this a look to help understand the direction in which some of our reference books are going. And if you are a Web programmer, keep this handy reference in its “App” avatar.

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