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The Web Programming CD Bookshelf Stephen Spainhour et al
Published by O'Reilly and Associates
576 pages
£ 92.50 + VAT
Published: Not known
reviewed by Gavin Inglis
   in the December 2003 issue (pdf), (html)

The web professional inevitably regards electronic texts, or ``ebooks'', differently from the casual or recreational reader. Seldom working without multiple browser windows, she is as comfortable locating reference information on the web as on a nearby bookshelf. This observation has motivated an entire series of CD Bookshelves from O'Reilly. These titles collect a number of established paper books on one CD, add a search engine and cut the price by approximately 50%.

Accessing the books is a pleasant surprise -- they are formatted in simple but clear HTML and therefore can be accessed in any web browser without the need for decryption or irritating plugins. This is a bold move on O'Reilly's part and is to be applauded.

Half of this particular volume is devoted to PHP. Following the O'Reilly convention, `Programming PHP' is the core manual for the language, written by its original author amongst others. It starts from the basics and passes through the landscape one would expect: language features, databases, objects, XML and security. There are specialised topics too, such as using the GD library to create dynamic graphics and the construction of PDF files on demand.

`PHP Cookbook' is the other familiar format here: a library of pre-written examples illustrating likely PHP tasks. These recipes are often useful to solve a problem at short notice; they are also a valuable resource for learning the language. In this volume they range from the humble ``Reversing a string by word or character'' to the mighty ``Displaying weather conditions'' -- interrogating weather stations around the world using SOAP.

The final entry in the trilogy is `Web Database Applications with PHP and MySQL' -- a focus on database-driven web sites with plenty of example code and interesting case studies. Taken together, the three books could bring a PHP newbie up to web application standard, with plenty of support in the form of the cookbook examples. Such a learning process would require a lot of staring at the screen, however.

In the world of paper, these books are dwarfed by David Flanagan's `JavaScript, the Definitive Guide'. A title suited primarily for reference, this fourth edition moves away from attempting to catalogue every little browser idiosyncrasy and concentrates on the more recent standards, Javascript 1.5 and level 2 DOM. This type of book suits the electronic format better than purely tutorial texts; our developer gets a lot of reader-friendly definitions on a single CD, which is much more portable than the weighty tome this book would otherwise be.

Speaking of weighty, even the previous volume is cast into shadow by Danny Goodman's `Dynamic HTML: The Definitive Reference'. This attempt to incorporate all the vendor and standards information about the devil's stew of technologies that is ``DHTML'' comprises an immense 1400 pages of dead tree in its second edition. There are seven chapters introducing and illuminating the concepts, but the rest is all reference: HTML/XHTML, DOM, stylesheets, Javascript/ECMAscript... the comprehensive indexes and cross-references are probably worth the price to any serious developer in this area.

Finally there is the third edition of `Webmaster in a Nutshell' which is also included on paper as a ``bonus book''. This collection as a whole illustrates that O'Reilly books do significantly overlap, in terms of technology. What differentiates them is their central focus and depth/breadth of coverage. `Webmaster' attempts to cover just enough about a variety of technologies that the average webmaster will reach for it first with simple problems. No doubt this is why it was chosen as the ``hardcopy'' book in this package. A significant amount of its content -- PHP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, XML -- is covered in greater depth in one of the other books. Any developer sufficiently convinced of the CD bookshelf concept would probably prefer to lose the hard copy and a few pounds off the price, but one imagines the paper book gives the package the presence it needs for a bookshop.

A further advantage of purchasing these books on CD is the composite index and search functionality. The index is presented in conventional form but gives references across all six books. There is also a packaged Java applet which offers free text searching across the books without any need for a web server. It works well when it works; unfortunately there appear to be compatibility issues with Mozilla.

The CD Bookshelf format offers a web developer portability and extra functionality across the included titles, along with significant savings; a rational model for the ebook concept. Of course the saving only becomes significant if our web developer would have bought all six books anyway. Despite the hefty price tag, this is a good investment -- and friendly to trees.

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