INDEX BY: Edition / Title
The Internet for Dummies (7th Edition)
John Levine, Arnold Reinhold, Margaret Levine Young
Published in 2000 by IDG Books Worldwide
384pp ISBN 0 7645 0674 9 £18.99

The Internet for Dummies Quick Reference (6th Edition)
John Levine, Arnold Reinhold, Margaret Levine Young
Published in 2000 by IDG Books Worldwide
224pp ISBN 0 7645 0675 7 £11.99

The Internet for Dummies

The "…For Dummies" series of books offers well-established reference sources for the enthusiastic amateur or general IT practitioner wanting to increase his or her knowledge base of an IT topic. The "dummies" appellation is misleading. It is unlikely that the reader will make much progress without motivation and, certainly in the case of these two books, some prior involvement with computers. Even the "Quick Reference" edition runs to over 200 pages, and so is not a brief introduction or short cut. Yet at the same time, the potential audience has been carefully identified as those who are essentially finding their own way through the material without significant external support from a teacher or tutor.

The two Internet for Dummies books adopt the writing style used elsewhere in the series. The language is informal and colloquial, designed to debunk the technical jargon that is often held to deter people from computers. For a UK audience the unremitting cheeriness of the text may be a little wearing, while, at the same time, plain English has largely supplanted the obfuscation found in older software manuals. But better that the fault should lie in oversimplification than to the contrary.

The layout of the two books is similar, although the Quick Reference uses a smaller, ring-bound page size. Each book has a table of contents that provide headings more or less on a page-by-page basis. For a reader on a steep learning curve it will often prove easier to scan these headings rather than try to work from the index, which largely comprises technical terminology. Both versions likewise have helpful glossaries. Curiously, however, while sharing many entries, each glossary contains items that are excluded from the other book.

In both cases the material is organised in short sections and sub-sections within chapters. These are effectively demarcated on the pages, and often include bullet points for clarity. A set of five icons is used in the margins to provide an indication of the type of information, for example "technical stuff" or a "warning" or "tip". The illustrations that are used are primarily screen grabs and are supportive, if not plentiful.

The authors are clearly authorities on their material and the principles of Internet use are conveyed in ways that are both definitive and easy to follow. There are, though, difficulties with the content, which stem essentially from both books being developed for an American audience rather than one in the United Kingdom. For example, Freeserve is mentioned in the Quick Reference version as a UK example of a free e-mail and Internet access service, but the reader is warned away from this kind of service because of the low level of support that is offered. Yet Freeserve's own claims to market pre-eminence in this country, and the plethora of other free ISPs that are available, suggest a route to going on-line that deserved more analysis from the standpoint of a UK reader. Similarly, much attention is given to America Online, for instance in the respective chapters on using instant messages. Indeed, the larger guide has a whole chapter dedicated to the virtues of this organisation. However, in this country AOL does not have the market dominance, and so significance, that it enjoys in the States. The differences between the two market places are obviously important particularly for those readers new to the Internet.

The authors have done well to provide descriptions of technologies that are current. The criticisms of ISDN, which appear to be similar in the States to those voiced here, are documented, and DSL technology is heralded as a much preferable alternative. The MP3 file format, which has caused such a furore over the last year, is also discussed, albeit not in great detail. Consideration of the requirements of both Macintosh and Windows users is provided. However discussion does not go beyond Windows 98 and so the new 2000 environments will have to wait for a future edition.

Neither book was intended for use in an educational context as such. The larger guide has a chapter, The Net, Your Kids and You, which looks at Internet usage from a parent's perspective, but the advice is a bit thin. The shorter section provided in the Quick Reference, entitled Kids, Porn, and the Web, is probably of more practical use, including the web addresses of the major software filters. However an educational practitioner - or parent - in this country would be better off browsing sites such as BECTa's (http://www.becta.org.uk) for guidance in this area. Likewise no substantive effort is made to provide an index of useful sites for education. This was a wise decision by the authors as it would certainly be outside the scope of the books to do this effectively.

While the light coverage of educational issues may be a weakness from the point of view of teachers, the same concern applies in other areas too. For instance, the larger guide has twelve pages as a chapter entitle My First Home Page. Even this modest ambition might not be realised in practice. The advice, "When asked for a filename, call the document index.html or index.htm if it's going to be your home page. These names are the names that most Web servers use." is hardly sufficient either to inspire confidence or to guarantee success.

It has been possible to consider the two books side by side because they cover essentially the same ground. Because of this, it is not altogether clear why both were published! The texts do not coincide, and as indicated earlier there are differences in emphasis. At the same time, the two volumes do not cross-reference to each other, and are in no sense presented as companion volumes.

The larger guide, in the standard "…For Dummies" format, may be intended for library shelves while the Quick Reference version, which is ring bound and so lies flat on the desk, may be aimed at the individual user. Both books represent value for money, but the latter work may be the better choice because, while more concise, there are no major shortcomings when comparing it to the more expensive alternative.

Jonathan Allen
Oxford Brookes University