The Future of Books Online, Part 1

I recently had the opportunity to speak with David Shank, Microsoft Group Documentation Manager for SQL Server User Education (the group responsible for SQL Server Books Online--BOL), who generously shared his group's visions and goals for the future of BOL. This topic covers a lot of ground, so over the next 3 weeks, I'll share the interesting tidbits I learned from David and add a few of my own opinions about what the future of BOL should look like. In addition, expect more commentary on this topic over the coming months. I'm a big fan of SQL Server BOL, and I'm excited about some of the short- and long-term changes that are in the works.

This week, I look at the terms "continuous publishing model" and "reducing the friction in publishing," which David used multiple times during our conversation. One of David's key goals for BOL is to reduce the time for bringing new BOL updates to customers while simultaneously making the process of integrating customer feedback and requests more seamless.

David explained that the User Education team has set an ambitious goal: to ship an updated BOL edition once every quarter. During SQL Server 2000's extended product cycle (more than 5 years), we saw only a handful of BOL updates, so shooting for four updates per year is a huge step. You might be asking, "Is that really necessary?" The short answer is yes. Microsoft's goal of continuous publishing is a great idea, especially in light of some of the more intriguing long-term plans that the company has for BOL, which I'll discuss in a moment.

However, the fast pace of these updates could get a bit tedious for organizations that already have to stay up-to-date with lots of information. Microsoft recognizes this challenge and has committed to doing a better job of helping customers determine which new BOL versions might be helpful. Each updated BOL edition will include searchable tags that clearly identify new and modified topics. In addition a Change Revision summary at the bottom of each new and modified topic will make it easy to locate altered content within a topic. Future BOL updates will also include a summary (posted at the download site) that clearly identifies changes in the latest update. This summary will give customers the ability to see the extent of the changes and decide whether they want to bother with the upgrade. This summary wasn't available for the December 2005 refresh of BOL. But a new BOL topic, "New and Updated Books Online Topics," lists all of the new and modified content by subject area. The direct link to the online version of SQL Server 2005 documentation is .

David went on to say that another of his goals is to reduce the time it takes to get new content into BOL to a week or less as customers provide feedback through the BOL online feedback mechanism. Full downloadable versions won't be released weekly, but David expects updates to the online version of BOL (which I hope won't be called Online Books Online) weekly--or even more frequently. David explained that Microsoft is looking at RSS feeds or a Windows Update mechanism to ensure that folks (e.g., SQL Server talking heads like me) who care about having the most up-to-date content can easily keep abreast of the granular changes to content as it happens.

David stressed the importance the User Education team places on the BOL feedback loop. SQL Server 2000 Books Online has always had the option to submit feedback about a particular topic, but the option is a bit hidden. You get to the feedback option by clicking a teeny tiny email icon. David told me that when asked about the feedback icon, more than one Microsoft employee said, "Wow, I didn't know it was there." SQL Server 2005 BOL has a much more intuitive Send Feedback link at the top of the page and an easy-to-use submission tool at the bottom of the page. The submission tool lets you rank a particular topic on a scale of 1 to 5 and also lets you add free-form comments to the email message.

Microsoft doesn't commit to responding to every piece of feedback, but assures me that every submission is read and acted upon as necessary. In fact, David used the expanded role of tutorials in SQL Server 2005 BOL as a good example of how Microsoft is responding to feedback from users. Apparently, the original plan for tutorials was fairly limited, but the community feedback during the beta cycle made it clear that users valued the tutorial content quite a bit. So Microsoft devoted substantial resources to improving tutorials in the SQL Server 2005 RTM version of BOL and has planned future enhancements.

On that note, I'm going to stop for this week and will pick up the discussion of tutorials in BOL in next week's commentary.

NOTE: David Shank has graciously invited SQL Server Magazine UPDATE readers to email him ideas about what BOL is doing well and not so well. Do you have feedback about what BOL should be? Send it to David at [email protected] Please send your feedback to me too at [email protected] and help me keep my finger on the pulse of the SQL Server community.

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