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Copyright

Title: Online: The Book
Author: John C. Dvorak and Chris Pirillo (with Wendy Taylor)
Publisher: Prentice Hall
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0-134-42363-0
Pages: 706
Price: $30.00
Rating: 50%

The idea is interesting - a user's manual to the Internet, since, as the book's cover says, "Because the Internet Does Not Come with a Manual." In 700 pages, the authors attempt to cover everything you need to know about the Internet, about working on-line, about spam, building web sites, using peer-to-peer networks and more. 

But, as often, the blurb does not tell the whole truth. While the back cover says "Includes complete, up-to-the-minute primer for beginners" - parse that and tell me what it means, please - this is hardly a book for computer neophytes. 

This book tries to be everything for everyone, and fails through its combination of entry-level info and highly technical stuff. It starts out with a technical chapter about how computers work; guys, this is a book about the Internet, and I don't see any reason why people need to know about VCM, WOL or wide-SCSI. Also, the section on selling over the Internet is too brief for anyone who really wants to sell things, and just a bunch of extra pages for the rest.  

Chapter 17, “How a Modem (Really) Works”, for example, spends 30 pages telling the reader something they probably couldn't care less about. Internet users want to use the Internet; they don't give a hoot about how their modem works. Sure, some people may be interested, but they can find that information on the web pretty easily. The combination of information for beginners (such as things about on-line dating) and highly technical information, together with the highly fragmented nature of the book (headers, sub-heads, boxes and make each page a puzzle of information), make this a confusing book at best. Setting up a network and, especially, a virtual private network has little to do with the Internet (though it does have to do with accessing your e-mail, at times). 

Some questionable statements spring up in this book from time to time. On page 3, there is a list of devices you can use to access the Internet. One device mentioned is a pager; I've never heard of any way you can do more than receive brief messages on a pager, and the authors do not explain this exciting new technology. Or when talking about downloading music, they say, "if you're uncomfortable with the gray area sites, there are places to find good music that's legal for downloading." This ungrammatical sentence does not say "if you're uncomfortable stealing music...", and leaves the entire ethical issue up in the air. (They spend more time talking about the legality of on-line gambling than they do discussing the ethical issues of raising a generation who thinks it's all right to steal digital media.) 

The authors' brief description of Macintosh computers shows their contempt for a brand that makes computers that work, and make it much easier to use the Internet than Windows-based PCs. (Viruses? Adware? Spyware? No problem.) I won't mention the errors in their description; okay, I will, because it's such a glaring error: they say "The Mac interfaces and connectors are different. They will work only on Macintoshes." Again, hidden in this dubious grammar is the usual Windows-zealot statement relies more on faith than truth. All Macs use industry-standard "connectors": Ethernet cables, USB and FireWire plugs, modem jacks, etc. This comment may have been true 5 years ago, but the authors don't seem to have seen a Mac since then. It's a shame that they don't point out how Macs are immune to all the dreck of the Internet: viruses, evil spyware and adware, and other annoyances.  

In fact, nowhere in the security chapter do the authors mention that one way to avoid viruses, adware, spyware, Trojan horses, and other malware is to avoid Windows. (To be fair, Chris Pirillo, one of the authors, is an ardent Linux user; he points out that Linux is generally immune to these problems, but makes no mention that Mac users don't have to worry about viruses.) 

I can't seem to stop - every time I get to a questionable statement, I have to, well, question it. Where were the editors? When talking about "Port 25 blocking", which is used by some ISPs to keep out spammers, the authors talk about "spam mongers who will join an ISP with the sole intent of mailing out a billion messages, up to 600 spam emails an hour". At that rate, this would take 69,444 days, or more than 190 years...

There is some good stuff here - there's a good section on search engines, giving a list of the main search engines such as Google, AltaVista, Yahoo and many other lesser-known search engines. But the book lacks what would be very valuable for any new Internet user (and many experienced users): a section on how to search, on how to get the most pertinent results. It's easy to type a few keywords and get a million hits; it much more complicated, yet valuable, to know how to whittle down your searches and not have to wade through pages and pages of links. 

Curiously, for a book on the Internet, it's odd that the authors don't include URLs for all the sites they mention. In a section on archives, they talk about several repositories of electronic public domain texts, yet don't give the URLs for any of them. Some of the URLs given contain typos that make them inaccessible if typed as shown in the book.   

This book is a hodgepodge of material that has no rhyme nor reason, that seems to have been slapped together to make a Big Book, rather than a useful book. Don't be fooled by the "complete, up-to-the-minute primer for beginners" on the back cover; you'll be lost if you're new to the Internet. I don't see the point of all the technical information on hardware and networking in a book on the Internet. The chapter on Web programming languages, for example, doesn't belong here; someone looking for recipes on the web doesn't want to start cranking out CGI scripts. These 700 pages could have been reduced to a more manageable, and more readable, 400 pages by excluding the dross the authors have grafted on to what was, originally, an interesting idea.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.