The O’Reilly Safari Books Online app broke my heart

I’m a huge O’Reilly Media fan boy. I can’t hide it. I hear Tim O’Reilly speak at conferences and I think to myself, “Screw being president, I want to be Tim O’Reilly.” I’ve been a subscriber to their online book services called Safari Books Online for years. Every month I see the bill for $43 come through and I think to myself, “Self, that’s the best $43 you spent all month.” But the real downside of Safari Books Online is that it is, as the name implies, an online service. I spend 90 minutes each day on a train and I would LOVE to spend a huge chunk of that time reading O’Reilly books. My iPad is not the 3g model so reading Safari Books Online is not an option for me. Then earlier this week I read that they had released the O’Reilly Safari to Go app for the iPad. I was stoked and excited! I got so breathless that I even tweeted my excitement and then was re-tweeted by @OreillyMedia as you can see from the image in the upper left corner.

I immediately downloaded the app and started playing with it. The fit and finish was not too good, but this is a first release product so I was cutting it some slack. It was a little slow and the screens visibly flashed when I changed screens. Typing was so sluggish that the cursor would lag behind my typing for 5-6 letters. This was all annoying but I was so excited to have these books on my train ride. After struggling a little to figure out how to get books into my offline book-bag I loaded 6 books into the bag and then left the app up and iPad running so they could download while I worked. When I got on the train I was dismayed to discover that I had no books at all in my off line book back. Odd. I know I put 6 in there. After tucking my daughter into bed I spent 3 hours fighting with the app. My final conclusion is that the app is complete and utter shit. It’s poorly designed, poorly executed, and horrible to use. And the UI is nothing like an iPad app. It has zero redeeming value. The offline book bag is so buggy that it takes me ~8 tries to get a single book in the book bag. Often this after waiting for > 5 minutes for the book to download only to have it fail and I have to start over. For online book reading on the iPad the mobile version of the Safari Books website is far superior to the iPad app. Most of my time with the app was reading error messages like the one to the left. What I found bemusing was that I really did feel mad at O’Reilly for this app. It wasn’t the mad that I feel when I get ripped off, it was the mad that I feel when my 3 year old dumps her plate out on the table like a baby. It was a feeling of being let down by someone who I know can do better. And it appears I’m not the only one. The pissed off comments on the Safari Books Online official blog are down right angry. So I did a little soul searching and asked myself why I felt so angry about my experience with the app. What I uncovered I tried to capture in a response post I made to CJ Rayhill, SVP Product Management & Technology. You can see my response here. And here’s the same text for your easy reading enjoyment:

CJ, I know you and your team have to be in pain over this app. It’s terrible. You know that. And now you have a sunk cost problem, a vendor issue, and a “pissed off geeks with pitchforks” problem. Many of us have been there. There are bound to be multiple come-to-Jesus meetings over this. I’ve sat in meetings like that. I’ve led meetings like that. It sucks for every single person at the table.

I’m not sure if the vitriol in the tone of the comments above makes sense to you or your leadership team. Some folks reading this blog might think that the responses are a little over the top. Let me take a shot at helping this make sense through a personal anecdote.

I love O’Reilly Publishing. Recently I was invited to be a tech reviewer for _R Cookbook_ and I was over the moon to be asked by O’Reilly to be a reviewer because I love O’Reilly and I have a ton of positive feelings about those fantastic animal clad book covers. So, it’s an understatement to say I’m a fan. And I have this very personal device, my iPad, which I also love. This device is so intimate that I bring it to bed with me and my wife sometimes feels jealousy toward the time and attention I give to this device. So I invited O’Reilly, who I love and trust, to come join me for a shared experience on this very personal device. And when O’Reilly came over, in the form of the Safari to Go app, it was like having a trusted friend over who then decides to rub their muddy shoes on my suede couch while yelling “F*ck your couch! F*ck your couch!” The app is shockingly bad and totally inconsistent with the rest of my experience with O’Reilly. Hours which I could have spent kicking ass were spent being mocked by this poorly coded and dysfunctional app now hogging the resources of my most intimate personal companion.

You can see this level of hurt and frustration in the blog comments above. The relationship O’Reilly has with its customers is special. You help us kick ass each and every day. When we want to learn something we go to you and you teach us through your books, your blogs, and your magazines. We’re the ones who download IT Conversations podcast and scan through the playlist deleting Dr. Moira Gunn in order to move Tim O’Reilly higher up in the playlist. When we daydream about being rock stars, we don’t think about which model of Fender we’ll play, we think about which animal the editors will pick to go on the cover of our book. And we hope to god they don’t pick some overly cuddly critter or a 3 toed sloth. We want to be like Randal Schwartz and have our book known simply by the animal on the cover.

CJ, you’re an ass kicker too. You graduated from the Navel [sic] Academy, for crying out loud. You’re a trail blazer and the Safari to Go app is a trailblazer. But I (and many others) think this project has lost its way. It seems the trail you tried to blaze was creating a multi-platform reader. Please allow me to be so bold as to suggest this is not the right goal. A better goal is to thrill your rock star fans with the best possible mobile off line Safari reading experience that helps them kick serious ass. You’ve got some hard choices to make about your vendor, your technology stack, and your implementation strategy. They are hard choices. But hard choices are the cost of being a trailblazer. If it was easy, someone else would have already done it.

I believe that the Safari mobile initiative could revolutionize not only technical books, but also text books. But the core of the platform has to be solid. Not only is the current core not solid, it’s unusable. But I know you can fix it. I’m glad Safari Books Online has you at the helm of their ship. Fix this thing, CJ, so we can all be rock stars with you. We’re mad because were disappointed. But we want so much to be thrilled.

-JD Long
@CMastication

If the couch reference is not entirely obvious, then you should brush up on your Dave Chappelle:

3 Comments

  1. Sameer says:

    You are funny JD! Thats an awesome letter. :)

  2. cpc says:

    It’s too bad you didn’t use the correct spelling of “naval” in your letter. That detracted from your thunder, probably more so for the alum you sent it to. Also note, while devs/IT guys may hear the theme song to Rocky in their heads, “kicking ass” at a terminal is most likely an unrelatable concept.

  3. DavidC says:

    It’s funny–I never knew about Safari books before this rant. So you’ve now earned them a new customer. For now I’m going with the 10/month option until (or unless) I find I need more.

    I do hope they fix the app, though!

    I also expected a site like this to have a ’social reading’ sort of feature, people could be ‘friends’ and see what each other are reading. I couldn’t find anything like that, though.

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