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Book Reviews

1997 Canadian Internet Directory

by Jim Carroll and Rick Broadhead

1997 Canadian Internet Handbook

by Jim Carroll and Rick Broadhead

A short time ago, the Western press fell in love with something called the Internet. The Information Highway was about to arrive, and boy, was it ever going to be great.

Four or so years later, the heavy breathing has yet to subside. Granted, we’re hearing less about the dawn of a global library and more about the evils of bomb recipes and dirty pictures. But the Net is more talked- and written-about than ever. For all that, though, the vast majority of this country’s population remains entirely clueless. What is e-mail? How do you build a web site? Where Do You Want to Go Today? The answers to these questions are still beyond most people – as they were four years ago .

Back in 1994, Jim Carroll and Rick Broadhead set out to provide the nation with answers. Their Canadian Internet Handbook was a monster bestseller. More than a quarter-million copies were sold, and the handbook still remains the only Internet book to ever reach the number-one spot on national non-fiction bestseller lists. Carroll and Broadhead turned into Canada’s premier digital-age celebrities. If the book itself was a little too earnest and plodding for its own good, it at least did a competent job explaining the Net. In those days, the cutting edge of the online world was using ugly technologies with names like “WAIS,” “gopher,” “telnet,” and, “anonymous FTP.” The handbook took the mystery out of them, and provided a comprehensive list of the Net’s information hotspots. It was a godsend.

As years passed, and the Net evolved, the authors took to publishing their handbook annually. Given today’s explosive level of media hype and public confusion, you might expect it to be more useful than ever. But this volume just isn’t up to the task.

The early versions were mainly about explaining some very unfriendly technology; the World Wide Web warranted only three pages in the 1994 edition. Today, the Web, for all practical purposes, is the only part of the Net anyone needs to care about. And the Web, unlike the dying WAIS and telnet, is a bright, colourful, easy-to-use thing. Granted, it’s still tougher than TV, but not by much. People who’ve never touched a mouse will need some instruction, but they can now find it in a Dummies book, or on a magazine rack. Likewise, those in search of more technical details – how to write Java programs, or the finer points of web site graphic design, for instance – have a wealth of manuals at their disposal. The era of the all-in-one Internet guide is over.

This leaves the handbook in an uncomfortable position; it’s too detailed for newbies, but not specific enough for more experienced users. Anyone looking for practical instruction on setting up a business web site, finding lost relatives, playing online games, or other things people like to do on the Net, will come away with unanswered questions.

That said, the volume isn’t entirely without its uses. It’s peppered with nerdy-but-fun tricks: how to trace the path from one machine to another, for instance. And it covers controversial subjects, like intellectual property wars and the pornography dilemma, with rare clarity.

Sadly, the handbook’s companion, the 1997 Canadian Internet Directory, has almost nothing to recommend it. Printed on yellow paper and laid out to look like the Yellow Pages, it aims to be the comprehensive guide to Canadian web sites. A noble goal, to be sure, but the Net is growing and changing so quickly that even online directories have trouble keeping up. Surely Carroll and Broadhead, knowing the Net as well as they do, can’t imagine that a book is up to the task. It’s telling that they’ve left out two of the country’s most popular destinations: Yahoo! Canada and the immense Sympatico site. Any Internet directory is bound to have omissions, but these are whoppers. Given the number of powerful, free directories available online, this volume offers exceptionally poor value.

Carroll and Broadhead know a lot about the Internet. They’ve been publishing books about it for nearly as long as most Canadians have heard of it. But the Net is growing and diversifying with shocking speed. The handbook and the directory, with their all-things-to-all-people approach, are just not relevant to today’s Net.