Monday, 19 July 2010

Oracle Application Express 3.2: The Essentials and More: A review (or Things I've learned from TV)

I have a nephew who is 10. Just the other day he was asking me about ancient Rome and I was halfway through a long description of the lives of gladiators before I realised that all the 'facts' I was giving him had come straight from the TV show, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and not from a history book at all.

I realised, with shame, that almost everything I think I know comes from television. Ask me about psychology and I've got Lie to Me; ask me about forensic science and I've got CSI; ask me about the inner thoughts of women and I've got Sex and the City; ask me about Oracle Apex...

A couple weeks ago the good people at Packt Publishers kindly sent me a copy of the newest Apex book on the market, Oracle Application Express 3.2: The Essentials and More by Arie Geller and Matthew Lyon to review.

Here's what I think:

Don't write an expiry date into your name (or what I learned from Space 1999):
There's an elephant in the room; let's ignore it no longer. It is the most unfortunate coincidence of timing that this book on Apex 3.2 has come out the same week we've all been going crazy about Apex 4. Definitely embarrassing. But does this mean that the book, like Benjamin Button, is born already old and out-of-date? In some ways the answer, unfortunately, is yes; but until the market is flooded with Apex 4 books you should not let that put you off this book. The core of Apex remains unchanged, and this book covers that admirably.

Sequence does not matter (or what I learned from Quantum Leap)
I must admit that I had a serious issue with the sequence in which the authors chose to order their topics. I completely understand their thinking, but when I buy an Apex book I do not want to spend the first 40 pages reading about DOM objects, javascript, CSS and html before the first real mention of Apex, and another 40 pages before I get my first real look at the IDE!

However, I understand that technical books are not necessarily meant to be read sequentially. If you buy this book feel free to skip straight to page 79; you can return to the earlier pages later. And you should, because a lot of it is actually informative (I, personally, needed to read the section on shortcuts on page 63).

People talk about what they know (or what I learned from House)
"If you go to an oncologist with a headache," Dr House says in one episode, "he'll diagnose cancer; but take that same headache to an optician and he'll recommend new glasses."

This book is full of references to right-to-left languages and Apex's globalisation abilities. I'm guessing this is something one or both of the authors are interested in. If this is functionality that you require then you really must buy this book.

The story is in the details (or what I learned from The Wire)
Reading this book I made a list of subjects I felt the authors covered very well, and of those capabilities of Apex that I - not a newbie in Apex but far from an expert - was discovering for the first time. And I'm pleased to report that this list was much longer than I expected it to be. From whole chapters like the very useful section on Best Practices (Chapter 24: a must-read for any newbie) and the chapter on Deployment (Chapter 20), to little things using $v in Apex Ajax instead of $x(itemName).value.

There's more. Their work on the APEX_ITEM api was exhaustive (I did not know about APEX_ITEM.MD5_CHECKSUM). And, as an Oracle Forms developer, I was very interested in Chapter 23, which is about migrating applications from Forms. I got the impression that this was not necessarily something that interested the authors as much as it interested me, but it is good to find a book that covers the subject.

Nothing's perfect (or what I learned from Lost)
The chapter on migration wasn't the only time I felt that perhaps the authors were bored with a particular aspect of their subject. The whole section on the Apex IDE was often merely descriptive rather than explanatory.

In addition, I understand that they needed to include a section on the Apex SQL Workshop for completeness, but if you're an Oracle developer and you don't use TOAD, PL/SQL Developer, SQL Developer or even SQL*Plus then you really shouldn't be over here playing with the big kids. Apologise to the rest of the class and then leave the room immediately.

As I said earlier we cannot ignore the fact that Apex 4 casts its wide shadow over this book. Only you can decide how important a factor this is to you. Outside of that fact, this is quite a good book: if you are a newbie it will not get you started on its own - for that you will need the Internet's resources (start here: - however, the authors' approach to Apex is often quite theoritical (and not just brutishly practical as many technical books can be) and this will furnish you with the background information you will need if you wish to do more than merely dabble with this technology.

If you are an experienced Apex developer the answer to the question "should I buy this book?" depends largely on your attitude to technical books. Personally, I like them. Google has pretty much killed off technical reference books, but I think there is still room for books like this that give you more information than a cursory web search can.

I'd love to tell you more, but I've got to go watch Jerry Springer. My nephew might have some questions about the life of the average, normal American.