The For Dummies franchise is now celebrating its 20th year in business, having begun with DOS For Dummies in 1991. The initial idea was pure brilliance. There were literally millions of computer users out there who had no clue as how to get around Microsoft’s arcane DOS system, and the technical manuals available were of very little help to the average user who had no previous knowledge of computer systems.
Then along came DOS For Dummies, a book geared toward the average person, which made learning how to navigate these systems a relatively easy process. The tone of these books was very user friendly, and never talked down to the user.
As anyone who has been to a bookstore in the past 20 years will note, the For Dummies series has been a huge success. They have published more than 1600 titles to date, and seem practically unstoppable.
Or are they? In the grand tradition of capitalism, they have spawned some competitors. The most notable of these being The Complete Idiot’s Guide series, launched in 1993 with their Complete Idiot’s Guide To DOS.
On the surface, the two series may seem identical, although the Dummies books seem to be a bit more widespread thanks to numerous parodies, and their earlier start.
But is there a difference between these two guides? For those of us old enough to remember, there was a famous ad campaign from Pepsi called “The Pepsi Challenge.” What they did was give blindfolded customers a drink of Coke and of Pepsi, and asked them which soda they preferred. The results of this blind test indicated a majority preferred the taste of Pepsi, which was pretty embarrassing to market leader Coke. It may have even led to the disastrous introduction of New Coke in 1985.
We decided to take The Complete Idiot’s Guide challenge against the For Dummies series, to see for ourselves what the differences between the two handbooks actually were.
Out of all the various subjects the two offer competing guides on, we chose music theory. It is a subject I had some previous knowledge in, and it is also something which can be presented in a variety of ways. It seemed like a good place to start.
Structurally, the two series are pretty close. Dummies contains five parts, broken down into 21 chapters, while Idiot’s Guide has six parts, broken down into 20 chapters. Both contain three Appendices, and an audio CD.