Safari Books Online, by O'Reilly
Posted: 6-Apr-2004

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: O'Reilly Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Diane Love Class: SERVICE
$14.99 per year 10 slot bookshelf  

Safari Books Online
Subscription reviewed: 10 slot bookshelf (normally $14.99 per month)

Historically, you buy a set of O'Reilly Missing Manuals and love them. Then O'Reilly brings out new editions, and you buy them as well. Repeat the process annually. Is there a way to break the cycle, save some trees and some space in your home and avoid the problem discarding out of date editions? Does O'Reilly's Safari Bookshelf, "the premier electronic reference library for programmers and IT professionals" provide the answer?

How it Works
The Safari Bookshelf is setup such that you buy a virtual bookshelf of limited size - it can be as few as 5 books, or much more - in return for a monthly or annual subscription. You are then able to read every word of your chosen books online using a web browser. You have access to each book for a period of 30 days. After the 30 days are up you can keep a book or select a new one. The 30 day timer runs individually for each book.

As an added bonus you are able to text search the whole collection, currently over two thousand books. You can also pay a higher subscription and get to download a certain number of chapters each month.

That's how it works for one person. There are various corporate models which offer volume discounts for groups of 5 or more people; at the high end all users have access to the whole library.

The pricing structure is broken down into Safari Basic and Safari Max, where the Max subscription provides the ability to download 5 chapters per month (and download credits rollover if you don't use them).

Safari Basic:

Basic Starter - 5 slot Bookshelf, $9.99 per month, $109.99 per year
- 10 slot Bookshelf, $14.99 per month, $159.99 per year
Basic Medium
- 20 slot Bookshelf, $24.99 per month, $269.99 per year
Basic Large
- 30 slot Bookshelf, $29.99 per month, $329.99 per year

Safari Max
Max Small - 10 slot Bookshelf $19.99 per month $219.99 per year
Max Medium
- 20 slot Bookshelf $29.99 per month $329.99 per year
Max Large
- 30 slot Bookshelf $34.99 per month $379.99 per year

NOTE: European Union customers are subject to VAT in addition to regular subscription charges.

What's In the Library
Expecting to find every book ever published by O'Reilly and nothing else, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of other publishers are involved - Addison Wesley, Adobe, Alpha, Cisco, Prentice Hall, Macromedia, Microsoft, New Riders, Peachpit, Que, Sams, Sun and Syngress, all members of the Pearson Technology Group.

I was quite disappointed, however, about the Missing Manuals. Out of the whole collection, only Windows XP Pro, Mac OS X (both Jaguar and Panther) and Office X for Macintosh are available. I don't think an OS manual is the best candidate for online access. You may need the book to diagnose why your computer isn't working (hence, you cannot get online to access the book). The Missing Manual books are popular gems, and need to be made available to Safari. There is good coverage of other O'Reilly series such as Animal, Nutshell, Cookbook and Hacks, including many Mac OS X titles.

I discovered that a book I regularly consult - "UML Distilled" by Martin Fowler - was available in a third edition, while I was only aware of editions 1 and 2. It was great to see this book in Safari, and even better to find out that there is a newer version than what I had been using. After this discovery, I decided to look for other favorites that I either own or would like to own.

In the OO Patterns field, the original "Design Patterns" by Gamma is not present, but "Design Patterns Explained" by Shalloway and Trott is available, and so is "Applying UML and Patterns" by Craig Larman.

In the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) section, there are only 10 books, all but one of them web-oriented, and nothing that I would call general HCI. The highly regarded Polar Bear book, properly known as "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web" by Morville and Rosenfeld, appeared in this section. Strangely "The Humane Interface" by Jef Raskin is available in Safari, but not listed as an HCI book.

Despite being published by New Riders, the web usability books by Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug are not available. Accessibility books are represented by Joe Clark's "Building Accessible Websites" and "Maximum Usability" by Slatin and Rush.

Paper vs Electronic
For people who have a broadband connection and a comfortable surfing environment such as a wireless notebook by the sofa, there are advantages to electronic books: you can text search instead of relying on an index, there are hyperlinks so that you can navigate instantly instead of turning and counting pages. You can copy and paste text out of the electronic version in an instant. Do you like to write in your books or put bookmarks or stickies between the pages? In Safari you can write public or private notes on a book section.

There are advantages also to paper books: we use our kinesthetic senses to handle and navigate them, whereas this is impossible with an electronic book. When you buy one you can keep it forever. You don't have to pay for it again a year later.

Safari misses some of the essentials of book personality. While you can see an image of the cover and any figures and diagrams, the internal typography and layout is identical for all books in the library. Even the page numbers are gone. In Safari, you read the book a section at a time. The section may be less than a screenful or several screenfuls, with a scroll bar. Next and previous buttons can be used to navigate sections.

Safari does provide the option to print using the web browser. By selecting the print option, it re-displays the text in a printer-friendly format. The printed pages are far from book quality format, and do not include page numbers, but they do make great reference material, and you still have these printed pages after the book is no longer in your bookshelf. The print feature is really useful for grabbing specific reference pages out of a book that you need to reference on a regular basis.

Can you effectively use a book online? Yes, definitely, though there's something a bit depersonalized about it, perhaps like the difference between phoning someone and meeting them. In one case, I preferred to see the real version of a book I particularly liked.

I believe the key to being able to read an online document is a hierarchical navigation structure. This is certainly available in Safari, but there are two different versions of it.

You can view the whole table of contents for a book as a list of hyperlinks (without page numbers). This is displayed with chapter numbers and lower level section numbers if any. The hierarchical indentation in this view is barely noticeable, so it can be hard to get the big picture.

Alternatively, while you are in a book, the content structure is also shown in a sidebar on the left above the library navigation hierarchy. Here, surprisingly, there are no chapter numbers. I find this hard to deal with as I find it easier to memorize the chapter numbers rather than the titles. Adding chapter numbers to this view would be a big improvement. Also, you may need to widen your browser, because in some instances the titles were extending over the boundaries (got a bit messy).

If your bookshelf is full and you have an urgent need for a book not in your bookshelf, you either have to wait until one of your current selections is 30 days old or increase your subscription. You cannot turn in a book early to get another book. With 10 slots at my disposal, I found myself initially keeping one bookshelf slot free in case I needed a book immediately. Some books take up two slots, so if the book I wanted was one of these, I'd still have to wait until another slot freed up.

Another big advantage of online access I discovered by accident. At work I received a 15 minute reminder for a lunchtime book club teleconference, but I had left the book at home. Using Safari, I was able to add the book to my bookshelf and access it online. Safari saved the day.

Since website accessibility is such an important topic nowadays, I wondered if O'Reilly had taken this into account in the design of the website. O'Reilly told me that they do have customers with disabilities who in general are able to use the website, and they are willing to make special arrangements where necessary. Safari could be particularly useful for blind people using screen readers or people with motor disabilities that prevent them from using paper books.

Safari vs Amazon originally started out as an online bookstore, and I've used it extensively for looking up books. While using Safari, I was struck by the contrast with Amazon. When Amazon shows you the interior of a book, you see an image of the page as printed with the proper layout and typography. Zoom buttons change the size of both text and diagrams. You navigate by turning pages. If you resize the window, the text does not flow to fit. Of course you can't see a whole book in Amazon (these are just previews to encourage you to purchase the books).

As previously mentioned, Safari does not show page boundaries or typography. To change the text size you have to use the browser's text controls, which have no effect on diagrams. If you make your browser window tall and narrow, the text flows to fit, which could be useful if you need to consult the book in conjunction with another electronic document.

Safari only offers you a couple of thousand books rather than the myriad contents of Amazon. On the other hand, Amazon does not instantly deliver the books you buy to your computer screen as Safari does. I'm grateful that Safari never distracts you with observations that other people who bought the book you are looking at also bought the latest Eric Clapton album, never tempts you with gold boxes full of kitchen utensils and hand tools, and hasn't yet turned into a mail order clothing catalog.

Nevertheless, it would be spectacular if you could access the whole Amazon library via Safari.

Mac Guild Grade
For Work: A (Outstanding)
For Home: B (Really Good)

Safari is an online bookshelf of technology books that you can read from any location where you have access to the internet. It includes hundreds of books, but not all the books you might expect to be available. In particular, Safari failed to meet my initial expectations for a cost-effective, tree-friendly solution for keeping my Missing Manual collection up to date. These are the books I use frequently at home. Their absence in Safari means that I must continue to purchase the paper books. As I further explored Safari, I did discover that it provided access to a number of books that are essential to my day job. Furthermore, it's quite delightful that I don't have to worry whether to keep these heavy volumes at home where I have more time to read them or at work where I have more need to consult them.

While there are pros and cons to electronic versus paper versions of books, the face value of Safari can easily be worked out by asking yourself a few questions: How many books are in your Amazon wish list? How many books did you buy last year? How many of your books are out of date editions that you would like to replace ? Additionally, for developers, text searching the whole library to solve an urgent problem could be worth a year's membership compared to the number of hours spent solving the problem.

On the whole, I find Safari a great resource for work, but less so for home. In focusing on "programmers and IT professionals", O'Reilly may be neglecting their customers' need for information about their digital hobbies.


  • text search all books in the library
  • hyperlinks in books
  • print sections for offline reference
  • access from anywhere (no worries about forgetting to bring book)


  • doesn't have all books by each publisher
  • original pagination and graphics of books are not shown
  • different inconsistent views of table of contents
  • cannot exchange book before the end of 30 days

Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice