Great documentation, great software

I have never seen bad software with great documentation: If the software was bad, the documentation was also bad. But good software don’t always have good documentation. It’s common to hear that a component or a library is great, but the documentation is too limited, confusing, outdated, or doesn’t even exist.

Documentation like testing, Quality Assurance, and validation, is at the end of the process of creating software. It’s easy to cut, most people don’t enjoy doing it, and justify this:

“We can release the software without a proper manual. People don’t read manuals anyway.”

That’s confusing the symptom and the disease. If people don’t read documentation, it’s because manuals are usually bad and unhelpful.

I run OpenBSD on my home computer. When I want to know something about a function, I don’t use Google, I use OpenBSD’s manual pages. Because they are well-written, and helpful. They are written so you learn how things work. They explain why things work this way. What to do, what to avoid.

Let's compare OpenBSD’s manual for strncpy(3) to other manuals and documentation. strcpy and strncpy have some well-known security problems. OpenBSD’s manual explain why they are insecure, how to use them properly, and point to strlcpy(3), a safer and easier version of strncpy(3).

Microsoft’s own [strcpy documentation](http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/kk6xf663(VS.80).aspx) is not very helpful, there are a few code listings without much explanations. And this warning:

These functions are deprecated because more secure versions are available; see strcpys, wcscpys, mbscpys.

Why are they insecure? What should I do if I really have to use strncpy because I need portable code? Microsoft a multi-billion dollars company doesn’t seem to care very much.

The Glibc is the C library used by most Linux distribution. Its strncpy(3) manual has more details than Microsoft’s one. There’s a single 3 lines example. And it also contains a minimal implementation of strncpy, which could have been replaced by more examples: I want to know of to properly use strncpy, not how to implement it. The manual could be made shorter and clearer if it was better edited.

There’s also a notice about security:

If the destination string of a strcpy() is not large enough (that is, if the programmer was stupid or lazy, and failed to check the size before copying) then anything might happen. Overflowing fixed length strings is a favorite cracker technique.

If somebody was stupid and lazy, that’s not “the programmer” but the author of the manual who is unhelpful and insulting. What about treating readers as adults? What about explaining the problem? And what about suggesting solutions?

This was removed in newer version of the manual, but it was there for years before somebody bothered removing it.

Good documentation is a clear sign of quality. When you have to decide between multiple software, read the documentation. It will give you more insight about its quality than any sale pitch or any fancy demo.