Friday, 25 February 2011

Review: Oracle Apex 4.0 Cookbook

I think Apex would be a hard topic to write book on, but I think the analogy Oracle APEX 4.0 Cookbook authors Marcel van der Plas and Michel van Zoest utilise a good, ahem... recipe. And it’s naked chef cooking, not Iron Chef, MasterChef nor is it quite "My First Cookbook."

I think the by-line on the cover is most apt – Quick answers to common problems. The other is "Over 80 great recipes to develop and deploy fast, secure, and modern web applications with Oracle Application Express 4.0"

Overall, I think the book would be great for numerous audiences and I think the "who this book is for" section is spot on. In particular, newer developers to the Apex environment would benefit from the easy to read, piecemeal approach this book has to offer. When I first started reading, it came to mind what a great reference book this would be for a university. Don’t get me wrong, advanced developers might also learn a thing or two. Those conversant with Apex 3.2 would also find this useful, as it covers many Apex 4.0 topics.

Straight onto the pan was a bio of and message from the author. I would imagine some people don’t put too much thought into these few pages, but I think it helps put things in context. It also recognises theses authors who put a lot of work into producing the content for these books. Good on the reviewers, too – Dimitri Gielis and Surachart Opun.

Back to the unique nature of the book - a collection of recipes. I think it’s a unique idea and works well in the Apex environment where you might need a lot of screenshots to illustrate the technique and goal for a given situation. Alternatively, it could be a boring book with a lot of prose and bolded words that distract you from what you’re reading – I think that’s what put me off Java long ago when I had a bad uni textbook.

It takes a basic idea or and describes the concept in a paragraph or two. What are you cooking?

Then they take you though the "Getting ready" process. This could be something small, like having certain settings set or having a script on hand. Find your ingredients!

The "How to do it" section is obviously the process to get the job done. Screenshots are used conservatively, either showing the starting point or end result, or some key illustration. Step-by-step instructions are also utilised, for instance when leading you through a wizard, which really is what Apex is all about when you start off. The problem with this is if you miss a step, start in the wrong spot, can’t find the button they’re referring to, or version patches since the book release has changed things in such a way that may confuse the reader. I don’t think any of this can really be avoided, hence the appeal to the recipe style book. Method to cook.

There is a "How it works" section that follows the recipe. You don’t get this in your usual food cookbooks and I think it’s a great tool to convey to the user another way of thinking about what they’ve just done. Do you ever listen to somebody explain how to do something and think "why" or "how" ? I know I do, and that’s probably why I wanted just a little bit more out of this section of the book.  My advice would be to take what you’ve learned, then go out and look for Oracle-by-examples or detailed blog entries describing the relevant task. Why you can't burn dihydrogen monoxide.

That being said, some recipes include a "There’s more" and a "See also" section. This really applies to all recipes as they don’t go into ridiculous amounts of detail, and they describe the great potential Oracle Apex has in crafting applications – this isn’t War & Peace.

Sometimes the format shows just how much of a winner it is. I find the topic of multi-language applications a little dry, but the recipe format really works well to break things down and make dry topics more readable. There were some good highlights too - the APIs chapter had the best explanation for how checkboxes work I've seen for a while. I also found the chapter on extending Apex wide ranging. It touched on topics that people will want to explore, and uses examples that people may want. Even calling Apex from Oracle Forms is briefly covered.

While it's not the final solution for most things, our family considers recipe books a starting point for ideas. I could go step-by-step and create something that looks nothing like the picture (my gardening brown thumb carries through to the kitchen), but the Apex 4.0 Cookbook doesn't convey those delusions. It tells it like it is, and it's up to the reader to take these ideas further and create something masterful.

Well done to Marcel and Michel, and to the team at Packt Publishing.

You can find another review by Christian Rokitta here, and peruse through the book's contents here.

Go start baking and serve out the Oracle community some delectable dishes!

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