Whatever Happened to Documentation?

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My Technologizer column this week looks at RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook, a new tablet that’s frustrating in its initial incarnation: it’s full of promise, but feels like RIM simply didn’t have time to finish it before getting it out the door.

Despite the PlayBook’s software issues, the hardware is quite pleasing. With one exception: the power button is as tiny and flat as any one I’ve ever seen on any electronic gadget, making it a challenge to turn the device on and off. I mentioned that in my piece, and heard from mobile-gadget expert James Kendrick via Twitter:

Aha! A useful but non-obvious feature which I failed to discover on my own.

By then, I’d already noted that the PlayBook–or at least the one loaned to me for review by RIM–doesn’t really come with documentation. (There’s a little bundle of safety and regulatory booklets in various languages, but no “here’s how to use this thing” manual, or even a quick-start guide.) The PlayBook’s user interface is quite good overall, and about 95% of it is easy to figure out without any assistance; still, a few pages of important basics would be a boon.

Of course, the PlayBook’s lack of print-based explanation is nothing unusual–with gadgets and software products these days, it’s pretty minimal at best in most cases. If you’re lucky, you get a decent help system or a meaty manual on CD-ROM, neither of which are anywhere near as convenient as good old wood pulp.

I’m not suggesting we return to the tree-murdering era when tech products sometimes came with literally thousands of pages of instructional material. (If you don’t remember that era, take a look at this Turbo Pascal box, which contained a few floppy disks and about a foot’s worth of paperback documentation.) But a little help is far better than no help at all.

(And yes, I know about on-screen tutorials, but I assume I’m not the only one who has trouble dealing with such electronic aids: you can’t skim ’em, and they’re usually so patronizing that I assume that they’re of interest only to clueless newbies.)