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Amazon Hacks Paul Bausch
Published by O'Reilly and Associates
302 pages
£ 17.50
Published: 2nd September 2003
reviewed by Gavin Inglis
   in the December 2003 issue (pdf), (html)

The online bookshop Amazon seemed a real novelty when it launched in 1995. Concerns were raised about stolen credit card numbers, and one vocal school of opinion preferred the atmosphere of the high street bookshop: the look, feel and even the smell of its stock.

These days Amazon is more like an institution - or an addiction. In a culture where blogs are a standard means of communication and ``you are what you buy'', it seems perfectly logical to buy your books (or music, or software, or kitchen gadgets...) from a web site dripping with user features, referral bonuses and integration opportunities for your own site. Throw in a public Web Services interface, and this book was inevitable.

The 100 hacks detailed within are a varied assortment. They range from general concepts (not really hacks) to very specific exploitations of Amazon features. Some seem trivial: shortening URLs or adding a search bar to the address bar of the web browser. If you can't afford a book right now, you can at least use its ISBN number to generate a picture of it with a customised discount label of anything up to 99%. Unfortunately this hack does not actually change Amazon's pricing.

Some other hacks really amount to a tutorial in using Amazon's interface, from writing reviews and managing wish lists to setting birthday reminders. But there are a substantial collection of actual hard code examples, particularly in the section about web services. You may bristle at the early hack which insists on Internet Explorer for Windows, but by the end the technology trail has visited Mozilla, PHP, MySQL, Perl, Javascript, SOAP...this diversity appears to be a deliberate choice on the part of the author. To perform some of the more involved operations it will be necessary to register as a developer and obtain a personal tag.

The hacks are sensibly organised into sections, from simple browsing and searching, to the site's community scheme and becoming a seller in your own right. Some of the hacks are really rather nice, like the one which fetches album cover artwork while you listen to MP3s. And you could hardly get better post-sales support than the author's personal weblog which builds on the book's contents.

Amazon Hacks is effectively a user manual for Amazon pitched at geek level. It serves well as a general introduction to both the shop front and the accessible operations behind the scenes. The book should entertain and educate programmers keen on online shopping and is very easy to get into. But if you buy it, remember it's only a guide to a single, online store. Don't complain if that small independent bookshop on your corner goes out of business...

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