Jun 22

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

New version of Safari Books Online

Safari Books Online version 5.0 went live last week. The new version includes a design overhaul and is much more usable than previous versions, in my opinion. Not only do we now have Ajax-based paging (no more tedious page-refresh), we've also adjusted the amount of content shown in both preview and full access mode so that you aren't having to page anywhere near as often. (The original, far-too-limited amount of content shown on each page was driven by concerns from authors and other publishers about possible piracy. The net result, as is often the case with excessive fear-based security, was to sacrifice usablility. We now have enough experience under our belt to persuade doubters that it's in everyone's best interest to make the site as usable as possible. I think we've taken huge steps forward with this release, and I'd love your feedback about whether you agree.) As part of this family of fixes, we've also made substantial improvements to the Safari search capabilities, including searching of books that aren't on your bookshelf and more satisfying and useful search results for non-subscribers.

Also as part of the new revision, we've added "Graphically Rich Books" including the Head First series, Peachpit's Visual Quickstarts, and various web and graphic design books. These books were previously not available in Safari as it was difficult to present their content in the old HTML-only version.

A few other things I especially like in the new version:

  • We've done a better job of instrumenting the service with feedback loops from user activity: things like "Other Readers Also Read" and "Top Sellers in This Category." This is all old-hat on sites like Amazon, but we'd not managed to work those angles anywhere near as hard as we should. (We still have a ways to go.) Another neat feature that's been around for a while is what Safari called "Self Organizing Maps," lists of sections from other books related to the page you're already on.

  • Safari Suggest. As you type your search terms Safari will suggest, in real time, expressions from the most popular searches our users have entered. Again, we're starting to eat our own dogfood regarding Web 2.0 and software that gets smarter the more people use it.

  • A new slider bar allows you to weight your search results towards popularity or our normal text-relevancy algorithm. To determine popularity, we use industry book sales and Safari usage data. This is definitely a labs kind of thing, but we wanted to test out two ideas: (1) Rael's contention that sliders are the new dropdowns :-); and (2) whether our book trends data mart could help inform search. I'd be really interested in feedback about whether this slider proves at all useful or interesting. (I'm going to be doing a lot of playing with it myself.)

  • This isn't new with Safari 5.0, but folks might be interested to know that Safari search results now include not just books but also articles from The O'Reilly Network and IBM DeveloperWorks. We're trying to make Safari into a one-stop shop for searching on technology topics.

Overall, I think the new version is a huge step forward, and hope you agree. If you haven't used Safari in a while, you should definitely give it a fresh look.

tags: specialized services, web 2.0  | comments: 19   | Sphere It

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Comments: 19

  Laurie [06.22.06 06:36 AM]

This awesome!! Great to see AJAX at work!! Congratulations

  rd [06.22.06 06:39 AM]

My company has access to the O'Reilly Bookshelf, when do you think we will have access to the new version. As of yet, I don't notice an Ajax style page change or anything like that. I'm pretty excited about the longer pages, that was one of my major complaints about the prev. system.

  Luke Baker [06.22.06 07:31 AM]

One thing that'd be super nice, would be to have keyboard shortcuts for going to previous and next pages. It probably should be turned off by default, so as to not confuse people who don't want them.

  ars [06.22.06 09:21 AM]

Is there a difference between and We have the latter and there's no difference. The paging changes sound nice and I'd love to see them implmeented in our version.

  Karl G [06.22.06 09:38 AM]

I love safari, have been a happy subscriber for 2 years, but I've always hated the interface (particularly the left side ToC expand/collapse). The new version is much faster, which is super nice.

As for piracy, it wasn't that difficult to screen scrape books in the previous versions.

I got annoyed at the image next button (can't typeaheadfind an image in firefox and no accesskey) so I wrote a greasemonkey script to scrape the pages and send them to my server for reassembly into chapters. It was an overkill but it was a fun afternoon hack and made reading much more pleasant. I'm happy enough with the changes that I probably won't bother updating my script (I really prefer conforming to the ToS, I promise).

@Luke: There actually are accesskeys for that in the new version (alt+1,alt+2) but these unfortunately conflict with firefox shortcuts. I'll probably greasemonkey them into alt+p and alt+n.

  Bill Higgins [06.22.06 11:39 AM]

I noticed the update over the weekend and saw lots of large and small improvements. Naturally here I'm only going to go into the one problem that I had :-)

I've had "Javascript, the Definitive Guide" on my Safari bookshelf for six months, even though I own a hardcopy, just because Safari search makes it so quick to find reference information in this books dense, info-rich reference chapters on DOM and Javascript. Unfortunately with the new Ajaxified Safari site, search is partially broken. If I search for a term (like 'eval') within the current book, indeed I get a good set of search results. Unfortunately when I click on one of the search results, it takes me to the beginning of the chapter rather than the actual content match, and since chapters can be 100 pages long, it makes it impossible to quickly navigate to the reference info I'm trying to find.

Would appreciate it if your folks could fix search.

But as I said, this is one negative and there are many many positives that I haven't mentioned here.

  Ben Stanfield [06.22.06 11:46 AM]

The suggest feature is really awesome. I've been using Safari heavily the past week, and really appreciated that feature.

There are a few things that bug me, though. One is the search results interface. The results are visually cluttered, and make it hard to scan quickly for information. This is particularly evident when searching inside one book. I don't need to see the book cover and title highlighted, when what I'm really looking for are things like chapter titles and snippets.

And speaking of snippets, they seem to start with the search term and then add a sentence or two after it appears. I'd prefer if the search term was in the middle, so I had some context before and after it ocurred.

Also, with the new AJAX interface, forward and back don't work. It can really interrupt the flow of reading to have to grab the mouse and then find the section I'm looking for on the side menu, then click back to it. I'd rather skip quickly from section to section with my normal apple-forward and apple-backwards arrow keys.

Also, two DeveloperWorks article in particular saved my day (and probably my job!) yesterday. Thank you for including those in searches.

All said, I think Safari is a steal at what I pay each month, and really love it. If there's a better place to direct my feedback than a blog comment, I'd be happy to do so.

  Don [06.22.06 02:44 PM]

I like the AJAX search suggest feature, but i would prefer you have some way of culling out suggestions that did not lead to any results (or a number beside each that shows the number of hits). More than once I have selected a suggestion only to find nothing matched that specific query.

  Tim O'Reilly [06.22.06 02:51 PM]

rd - Safari is provided through a whole bunch of resellers using their own portals. I should have mentioned that in my original posting. The change is live on the O'Reilly portal at and the Pearson portal at, but I don't think that resellers such as ProQuest and Thomson/NetG have got it up yet. I'm told that the new release will be deployed everywhere by the end of July. The issue for ProQuest and Thomson is that they supply a lot of behind-the-firewall business, university, or library accounts, so this isn't just a matter of rolling it to a single site.

  Tim O'Reilly [06.22.06 02:54 PM]

Bill, Ben, Don -- and any other commenters who are making great suggestions and bug reports -- I am forwarding all your comments directly to Chip Pettibone, Safari's VP of Product Management. So rest assured that they are seen not only by me but by the folks at Safari. Thanks for the feedback.

  Vincent Veselosky [06.22.06 07:37 PM]


Glad you asked. I hate it. I agree that the "readers of X also liked Y" is a good addition, and I like getting search results from the articles, etc. But this AJAX business is exactly what the site does NOT need. Readers don't need the page to update in pieces, we just need the CONTENT to load FIRST so we can start reading while the navigation and extras continue to load. This would easily have been accomplished with a CSS layout and no javascript. Instead, I have to watch this silly animation load my content. More than once I have had pages "lock up" on me, or get confused about which page is "next" because I used the dreaded back button. I don't need magical javascript to read a book, I just need the text, okay? (And yeah, the pretty pictures too, but I'm willing to wait for them to load.)

Worst, you failed to fix my primary usability problem with the site. THE FONTS ARE TOO FREAKING SMALL! And now that it's all javascripty, clicking the "big font" button actually makes them SMALLER in my browser (because apparently the js does an end-run around my user stylesheet that sets the minimum font size).

Look, I love your Safari service and your books, but all the whiz-bang Web 2.0 spectacles recently added don't enhance the experience of the user so much as the experience of the people viewing the five-minute demo. Why couldn't you instead spend some effort tracking down the bugs in your translation system that cause whole sentences to get buggered into attribues on some invisible tag? (Try proofreading the Safari version of "AppleScript: The Definitive Guide, 2nd Edition" or "Building Scalable Web Sites").

At least the web site remembers my user cookie overnight now.

  Simon Sherrin [06.22.06 09:29 PM]


The design of Safari definitly feels slicker but I think you're going to get another article out of it, talking about the inertia of exisiting web sites. What are the challenges for companies with existing sites that are trying to retrofit those sites to be more AJAXian and Web 2.0? I'd be interested in seeing an article on how the team arrived at the set of AJAX and Web 2.0 elements to be included in this release, the elements that were rejected and a focus on elements where problems with user acceptance was forseen, but the decision was made to go ahead with them.

(Personally, a real annoyance with release 5 is that the links to chapters/sections and search results have to be opened in the same window. Previously, when a list of results came up, a couple of clicks of my scrollwheel an I'd have the chapters would opening up in different tabs.)

It's still a great resource, and would hate to be without it.

  Chip Pettibone [06.23.06 09:34 AM]

Okay, we are discovering that we hove lots of users who are passionate about tabbing! Ben, try it again. You can now bring up search results in tabs. Our developers fixed it within hours of my asking. Can’t do that for everything, but it was nice to see that happen. We’re working on the TOC next. We’ve found a nice trick which will allow us make the right click functional and still keep the javascript links which enable our intelligent page refresh. Should be up next week.

  Jacco Rens [06.23.06 11:48 AM]

To bad Safari 5.0 makes my 2.0.3 crash frequently. When I go to a next page, it's keeps on acting like it's loading.. and then pooof..

  Raymond Brigleb [06.26.06 07:40 AM]

Oh Tim that is SO much better! It's like a breath of fresh air! It's so nice to see O'Reilly taking the Safari feedback to heart. It's always had so much promise.

  rd [06.30.06 08:37 AM]

Tim, thanks for the info on how Thomson NETg works. I sure do hope they get the changes soon, they sound like they might be really nice.

  Chris Morgan [07.06.06 04:07 AM]

Tim, regarding data around actual piracy vs. usability, you wrote "We now have enough experience under our belt to persuade doubters that it's in everyone's best interest to make the site as usable as possible." I work in publishing and am often in conversations where the effort to avoid piracy (at the expense of user experience) seems dispraportionate to the likelihood or possible impact of piracy. I'd be interested in hearing more on your experience and data if you're willing to share.

  M Whitener [07.11.06 05:13 PM]

> piracy vs. usability

Usability has lost bigtime with "Graphically Rich" books. Slow, unattractive, no control of fonts. I've used Safari since it opened. I have enthusiastically told lots of people about Safari. I hope "Graphically Rich" is not the future -- it's a real step back. At least give us the choice to switch back to HTML-formatted books. Two of the books (not new ones) that were already on my shelf are now unusable.

  Stanley Siu [12.04.06 10:05 PM]

The Ajax look up causes the Mac Safari browser to crash to often!!

Version: 2.0.4 (419.3)
Build Version: 2
Project Name: WebBrowser
Source Version: 4190300

PID: 885
Thread: 0

Exception: EXC_BAD_ACCESS (0x0001)
Codes: KERN_PROTECTION_FAILURE (0x0002) at 0x00000020

Thread 0 Crashed:
0 0x953163a6 khtml::InlineFlowBox::addToLine(khtml::InlineBox*) + 32

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