Signs to the highway

Ken Welsby reviews a selection of Web guidebooks
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's hard to decide which is growing faster - the Internet or the number of books about it. The total passed the 300 mark earlier this year and by the end of this month it will exceed 400.

The scope and quality varies enormously. They range from simple, step- by-step guides to getting connected and exploring the online world to heavyweight technical tomes which are unlikely to be needed outside a large corporate IT department.

The quality is even more varied, ranging from "must have" through "don't bother" to "why did they bother". Inevitably, most of those that have crossed my desk in recent months - most of them are too heavy to read on your lap - have occupied the less-useful end of the spectrum.

As one of those who was using the Internet long before the World Wide Web was invented - what an American colleague calls a Net Vet - I'm often asked by those starting out to recommend a good book on the subject.

Last year, which in Internet terms is a bit like saying "back in the Middle Ages", the simple answer was The UK Internet Book, by Sue Schofield. It takes you through what you need, how you get it, make it work - and some of the more interesting things to do once you're there.

This year, the answer is a bit more complicated - but the first choice, at least for starters, is the second edition of the same book. Its warm and friendly style takes you through the technicalities and makes the whole process of getting connected almost painless.

As you would guess from the title, the author is British-based - last heard of telecommuting to London publishers from the depths of darkest Sussex - unlike many other books which assume that their readers all live in the United States. So there are lots of helpful contacts here in the UK: telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, FTP sites and Web locators. Verdict: Highly recommended.

Another recent offering with a British accent is Murder on the Net, by Julian Ellison and Terrance Dicks. The idea behind the book is that it takes you through the process of getting connected, and points you to clues on the Net (at BBC Web sites) which should help you to discover whodunnit - and, incidentally, help you to become a more effective user.

I have to confess I didn't solve the murder, but that could be because I got bored with the plot. Which is a shame, because the technical content of this book is done well. Information is clearly graded Green (for new users), Amber (for those who have limited Net experience) and Red (for the experienced user). It's all explained in plain English, rather than technical jargon - and, as you'd expect from a BBC publication, it assumes that the readers are in the UK. But more of the Internet meat and a little less of the murder gravy would have been a distinct improvement. Verdict: Useful if you don't mind the unusual package.

The other additions to the shelf this month are for professional and creative users wanting to create their own Web pages.

When the World Wide Web Handbook arrived, I hoped it would be a useful book for those making the leap from reading other people's Web pages to creating their own - users such as small firms, freelance creative people and community groups.

Maybe it's my perception, but I think that most people wanting to create a presence on the Web would probably already be connected themselves and have at least a basic familiarity with the Internet.

Peter Flynn seems to disagree. I say seems because this book somehow doesn't find its target. It lacks some of the basic details that a total novice would require but includes a lot of information that experienced users would probably find superfluous. Later chapters on HTML - the language used to create Web pages - are better, with much useful advice. Verdict: lacks focus.

In sharp contrast, Spinning the Web, by Andrew Ford and Tim Dixon, is my recommendation for people contemplating building a Web site of their own - whether for business or pleasure.

After a brief overview of the Net's origins and evolution - a useful perspective - we are given an overview of the issues involved in developing a Web site and a look at likely developments in the future. Armed with this information, we then learn not just how to create a page using HTML, but much, much more.

In particular, Ford and Dixon explain how to set up a Web server and how to maintain it - or, if the pages are going to live on someone else's server, the issues that involves. Verdict: If you're a budding Webmaster, this is the book for you.

'The UK Internet Book' by Sue Schofield (Addison-Wesley, pounds 19.95). 'Murder on the Net' by Julian Ellison and Terrance Dicks (BBC Books, pounds 16.99). 'World Wide Web Handbook: an HTML Guide for Users, Authors and Publishers' by Peter Flynn (Thomson, pounds 24.95). 'Spinning the Web: How to Provide Information on the Internet' by Andrew Ford and Tim Dixon (Thomson, pounds 19.95).