It's a PRESENTATION Foundation...

This post from Phil Haack points to Charles Petzold's concern that "prose is dead" in technical books. The concern was based on Jeff Atwood's comparison of two different WPF development books. Wow, how's that for name dropping? Three names in two sentences. I ought to point out that I have a great deal of respect for Charles, Jeff, and Phil and all three write blogs that are in my must-read list.

As shown in Jeff's comparison, one book (Petzold's) has large blocks of uninterrupted text and appears to be entirely monochrome, while the other book (by Adam Nathan) has smaller blocks of text and makes liberal use of color and visuals.

I agree with Phil's commentary about "visual learning," and his pointer to the excellent "Head First" books is spot-on, but I actually think there's an even more important thing to consider here. That's the subject matter... in this case, the topic of both books is the new Windows Presentation Foundation API that's a part of the .NET 3.0 release. I find Petzold's statements that "Powerpoint has won" and the "battle for the future of written communication is over" to be a bit unfair. It implies that readers are looking for visuals alone or that well-written communication is no longer important.

Anyone who has seen a WPF sample application knows that this is not the same ol' Win32 GUI toolset. In the hands of a talented designer, it's shiny. It's pretty. It glows. It makes you want to look at it... is it unreasonable to prefer a book that conveys the same feeling?

It's also worth noting that the bar for information presentation has been raised over the past few years. As computer users become more familiar with different types of data visualization, and as flashy UIs like Vista's Aero take hold, expectations for UI are higher. Even in a typical "line of business" application, it may not be enough any more to use the same old Windows UI toolkit. You could certainly argue that it's possible to build an efficient, intuitive, and fast application using the same Windows UI tools we've used for nearly 15 years. No question. But few applications compete only in their specific market or product area. Most are competing for attention with other applications on the user's machine. Or with a massive web designed, in many cases, by some very talented designers. If you want customers to enjoy using your application, as opposed to feeling like it's drudgery, spending some time (and money) on its appearance and visualization is critical.

Now replace "using your application" with "reading your book". 

I've not read either book yet (though I plan to do so shortly, thanks to the O'Reilly Safari Library subscription -- highly recommended), but I don't think it's unreasonable that Jeff (or anyone else) prefers the book that has more visuals. A book whose purpose is to introduce a "Presentation" framework probably ought to have the presentation of its content made a higher priority than would a book discussing some "under the hood" technology (say, the Windows Communication Foundation, or WCF). In a book that covers UI controls, gradients, and different layout options, I'd probably like to see... UI controls, gradients, and different layout options.

That's NOT to say that the communication of ideas and information aren't the highest priority. No amount of visual flash will makes up for poorly-written, poorly-edited, or poorly-communicated content (and that's the true evil of Powerpoint). And few are as well-regarded as Petzold when it comes to communicating difficult technical content in a way that's easy to understand and put into practice. An entire generation of Windows programmers, including myself, was "raised" on his Programming Windows titles. I'm certain that I'll find his book well-written and that it'll provide useful information on WPF.

But it's not hard to see why some would prefer a book that presents a presentation framework in a presentable way... is it?