Going paperless by making manuals easier to find


As I move to get more paper out of my life, one thing I'm throwing away with more confidence is manuals. It's pretty frequent that I can do a search for product model numbers or other things on a manual, and find a place to download the PDF. Then I can toss the manual. I need to download the PDF, because the company might die and their web site might go away.

I would like to make this even easier. For starters, it would be nice if the UPC database (UPC are the bar codes found on all retail products) would also offer a link to getting all manuals and paper that come with a product. I would then be able to just photograph the bar codes of all my products with my phone or camera, and cause automatic download or escrow of all manuals. Perhaps a symbol next to the UPC could tell me this is guaranteed to work.

It would be even better if companies escrowed the manuals, which is to say paid a one-time fee to a trustable company which would promise to keep the documents online forever. This company must be backed by a very solid company itself, perhaps a consortium of all the major vendors with a pact that if any of them go other, the rest take up the slack of maintaining the site.

In fact, all free, public documents should have a code on them that can be turned into a URL where I can fetch the document, as PDF, HTML or even MSWord. Any attempt to scan such a document would pick up this code and know it doesn't have to scan the rest unless it is marked up. For books, we sould key off the ISBN as well as the UPC. Eventually one of the newer, compact 2-D "barcodes" could be used to code a number to find the docs.

Of course, many products are now coming without manuals at all, and that's largely fine with me.


If a startup started by offering manual depository and value add for free - would they violating copywrights of the owners. In other words - do you need explicit permission to host manuals? If so, I don't see how this model will ever work. It will be worse than YouTube and Hulu trying to get rights.

However, most companies now do provide their manuals online for free today. They do this (and it is perhaps the biggest success of PDF as a project) because it's far cheaper to do that than to have staff which take support requests from people who have lost manuals, or even to fulfill orders to replace lost manuals, and keep inventory of them on hand.

The main issues are:

  • There is no fixed way to find the manuals. Googling does pretty well, but sometimes the different patterns make it convoluted
  • Companies go out of business, or change web sites, and manuals vanish.

But it is in the interests of companies to make it easy for users to get manuals, self-service, and to give them the comfort of knowing they can always get the manual if they throw out (or never get) the paper one.

The database backing it up is the real added value IMO, since so many things now have electronic manuals anyway. I scan stuff, and rip CDs/DVDs where I can, because keeping random plastic junk is a PITA (music CDs likewise). I have switched to buying most of my reading electronically, and only since losing my liseuse have I realised just how definite the switch is (if you don't have one, get one).

Anon, that's why involvement of the copyright holders is key.

There will no doubt be resistance and whining, partly because so many copyright holders delude themselves that the manuals have value separately from the product. Canon is a splendid example in the other direction, usually releasing the electronic manual online with the product becoming available (my camera was like this, for example). But I can see the RIAA trying very hard to persuade software makers especially that the manual is what makes the product valuable and not adding DRM at the very least is opening the door to pirates. Forget that most software now has a "manual" that says "use the online help" and little else, and pirate copies come with the installer that includes the help...

I have often needed to find manuals online so I love this idea. Most recently it was the schematic and timing diagram for my Bosch dishwasher. Even the crude scan was invaluable in diagnosing my problem and saving hundreds of dollars on repairs.

I happen to know of a major company that would love to get into the Document Banks business and provide just the sort of service you suggest: maintain an online repository of valuable and/or useful documents at a security and access level appropriate to the content and user community. Before they can do this, they need a business model. Please explain this to me. Would I have paid $2.00, for example, for the timing diagram to my dishwasher? It came up for free at the Bosch web site that Google found. I would have resented having to pay for it, and might have refused. On the internet we all expect everything to be free. EFF, FSF, CopyLeft, etc. encourage a culture of free. That doesn't pay the bills and it doesn't pay for the service you want. I don't think HP or Canon would pay an escrow fee to the company I'm thinking of. Maybe a cheap retail end can be a loss leader for a high-value B-to-B end? What do you suggest?

-Eric Saund

Is more a hosting company business model. Vendors would love to not have to ship manuals with products at all, or to ship reduced ones and provide online access to the full one. They often put the manual on a CD instead these days.

If the public became aware of a branded service that was guaranteed to keep their manuals around forever, surviving the death or policy changes of the company that made the product, the public would be more tolerant of not getting manuals (or of tossing them out.)

The way I can imagine guaranteeing the company will be there forever is for all the companies that want to use the "forever online manual" logo to put in money to an escrow/endowment fund that assures the hosting will always be provided. It may be that the money goes to a legal trust fund which simply hires a hosting company, but owns the domain, and changes who it hires to host if need be over time.

Even better, you could have all the companies join a pact forcing them, together to support the company, no matter how many of the companies die. So, as long as one company is alive, all the manuals of all the companies are alive.

An outfit like the Internet Archive could also participate, but again, you don't want any one organization which might die to be in charge, you need either an endowed trust, or a consortium with assured existence.

Here is a site for manuals that is very good http://www.retrevo.com/samples/index.html

I was able to download a manual for my washer which was flashing its lights when it wasn't on and beeping incessantly. Downloaded the service manual (not included with the washer) and there was a procedure for determining the error code.

Turned out the error was "Too Much Soap"... I started putting much less detergent into the washer and found that it washed the clothes fine that way and the beeping and flashing stopped.

Not only did it solve my problem, but it will save me money on detergent too. Note to those with a front loading washer - they don't take the full cup of soap that you would put into a top loading washer.

Don't know if this site has what you have in mind, but I find that simply putting in the manufacturer and model number suffices... I don't need the barcodes to find the right manuals.

I keep a local copy of all manuals I can in PDF format.

For older paper documents, I run them through the band saw to chop the spine off and run them through a sheet-fed scanner prior to recycling them.

Having a third-party database out there where all such important documents would be retained forever (or at least a very long time) would be a great help.

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