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Comment of the Fortnight
18 April 1999
“Open Manuals” - a Suggestion for Hardware Manufacturers

It's a simple enough idea:

If your customer feels good about purchasing your product, it's good for your company.

Here's a suggestion to put that idea into practice:

Make the user manuals for your products “open” -- put them on-line.

Making your manuals open will help win the good will of pre-sale, post-sale, and non-sale customers.


Sure, you have your press release and data sheet online; but that is often not enough for someone who's deciding whether to buy your product. For example, look at these lines from data sheets from three different digital cameras:

Camera A Controls and Display: User selectable controls and LCD status display
Camera B Misc. Features: Intuitive LCD
Camera C User Interface: Graphical, menu-driven, easy to navigate

When Joe Consumer is reading the data sheets, how does he know which of the interfaces best meets his needs? In this case, the data sheet hasn't differentiated the products in any meaningful way. With the manual on line, Joe can get the same complete description of the product that he would get if he bought the product; he can make a much better judgement of how much easier or intuitive your product really is. This gives him a good feeling about your product, and that's good for you.


Unless your customer is pathologically organized, the user manual will tend to migrate away from the product, often becoming lost among other documents or even being discarded accidentally. With on-line user manuals, Joe can always look up the details, possibly saving a call to tech support. This becomes especially important if Joe has bought a product that has been discontinued in the time between the original purchase and the need for the manual.


When Joe Consumer is ready to move up to the next model of your product, he may decide to give his old model to his cousin Jane. Although you haven't made any money on this transaction, Jane can still get a copy of the user manual. She feels good about her acquisition of your product. Opening up your user manual has enabled you to establish “second-hand brand loyalty” with a potential customer.

What's the Cost?

Presuming that your manuals are already in machine-readable format, the lowest cost alternative is to convert them to an Adobe Acrobat .pdf file. The cost comes to a few hundred dollars for Acrobat Distiller plus the time involved in doing the conversion.

If you're a bit more ambitious, you should convert the manuals to HTML with links among related topics. This is a much more labor-intensive process, but doesn't require the customer to have anything more than a browser. You should also make a .zip file that contains all the HTML files and illustrations so that customers can download and browse the manual without having to stay connected.

Finally, it's nice to make the on-line version searchable. This is costly in terms of indexing time, but there are plenty of off-the-shelf packages to assist with that task.

What's the Down Side?

The main downside comes in pre-sale. Joe is more likely to make his purchase decision without a trip to the store; without holding the product in his hands and listening to a sales pitch. If emotion or hands-on encounter forms a large part of the product purchase decision (as with the Apple iMac), then the on-line user manual may not be advantageous.

Also, if your user manual is poorly written, you may not want to drive away potential purchasers by letting them preview it.

The Consumer Isn't Your Only Customer

If you're a hardware manufacturer, you want to be compatible with as many different kinds of software as possible -- as long as it doesn't affect your bottom line to do so. If you are making your profit from the actual hardware rather than the driver software, then it is to your advantage to open up the interface specifications and make them public.

For example, at the moment I own two pieces of hardware which I cannot hook up to my Linux system, which I'll call product A and product B (to protect the innocent) There are no software drivers for either of these products.

When I talked to the company that is the main technical contact for product A, it became clear that they are a software-driven company; opening up the specification to allow competing drivers to be written would not be in their best interests.

On the other hand, product B comes from a company whose major selling point is low price. It's fairly clear that nobody buys this product for the driver software. Unless they have some restrictive contract with the folks who are writing their current drivers, there's no reason that they shouldn't open up the API for their hardware.

Note that this is still “open manual”, not open source. I'm not asking company B to release the source code for its current driver. I'm asking that they open up the technical documentation that will enable others to write drivers. This is a win-win situation; more people will be able to hook product B to their systems, and company B incurs only a minimal expense in putting the programming interface specification online.


So, hardware manufacturers, there's the suggestion. Open up your user manuals to win the good will of your customers, and open up the technical specifications to allow your hardware to be connected to as many computers as possible.

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