Early Thoughts On Sophie

I’ve installed and played around with Sophie for a few days now. It’s an Alpha release, so expect bugs and crashes and weird little things to pop up.
sophie_project.JPG
The current Sophie user interface is clunky, to say the least – objects dragged about don’t feel snappy, and there are no help files built into the software. There is no right click functionality anywhere. To make things worse, the only documentation I’ve found is a Quicktime movie over at the Sophie project page, and while it may cover all the basics for writing a Sophie eBook it isn’t enough.

The project site is a minor drawback on its own – it is hard to navigate and is a complete pain when you’re trying to find information about the software. A quick peek around tells me the site is running on Drupal, though I may be mistaken.

Perhaps a wiki will help, in due time.

I’m not exactly sure how Sophie will be accepted by the global eBook publishing community, and from what I see it looks like a glorified cross-platform version of Powerpoint. With comments, streaming and web integration.

But apart from all the Alpha hiccups (we must give it time to grow), Sophie has all the basics in place. Videos, music, pictures and good typography support are built in, as well as integration with servers. The inclusion of a Timeline feature is slightly perplexing to me – books are meant to be browsed at your own pace, are they not? – but overall it looks very promising.

I’ll see if I can help out with documentation – Sophie has a lot of potential; let’s hope it starts taking off in a year or two.

Download Sophie here.

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Category: Publishing · Writing Tools
  • Steve Riggins

    Heyas :) I’m the person responsible for Timelines in Sophie. Thanks for your comments! We take everything in and I fully agree that we’ve got a number of things to tighten up.

    As far as timelines in a eBook, I’ll give you a little history as to why they exist. Early in my career, way back in 1989 (yikes!) I programmed titles such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which was the first piece of software to integrate with the audio aspect of a CD-ROM (redbook at the time, using an off the shelf redbook audio disc).

    We then moved into video, such as Poetry in Motion, Who Built America, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, etc.

    These titles were *all books* that treated the content on an equal basis. You could read about Beethoven, or the instruments of the period, play games or even play the music and have content streamed past you as the music played. Hear something interesting? Stop the music and dive deeper.

    These titles all needed custom programming – Even the titles we did in Director needed an engineer to put the content together and link it all up.

    Starting with the Expanded Books Toolkit, then TK3, and now Sophie, we’ve been learning how to make tools that maintain fidelity across platform and allow the creation of rich titles by the Authors of the world, not the engineers.

    So with timelines, we have a simple start to adding time based content to a book. Drop a MP3 of Beethoven’s Ninth on a timeline, lay out 10 pages, 100 pages, across that music and you’ve easily synced music to pages, which you can read page to page, or link to link, or as a stream of music.

    We have many plans for timelines as Sophie becomes more sophisticated.

    As for no contextual menus, we’ve tried to focus on what people really need to do through huds, without needing menus. We have some menus, but we’d love most of those to go away as well. Menus just tend to grow and then people play the follow the hierarchical menu game. Huds are not perfect yet, but we’re working on it. :)

    Thanks again for the input – Keep it coming!

    Steve

  • tim Rowledge

    One reason we’re avoiding anything to do with multiple button mice type inputs is (no, not because we’re Mac people obsessed with single button mice, in fact most of us are Smalltalkers who are completely used to 3 button mice) that a large fraction of the eBook hardware platforms are touchscreen devices and that means single effector input is important.

    Yes, we run on every platform we can manage; Mac, Windows, *nix etc. Some people will complain that on each platform we should ‘do the platform thing’ but that way lies madness unless you have a significant budget for multi-platform staffing. Been there, done that; look at the history of ParcPlace Systems.

    Besides it’s time to try some new UI techniques. Menus are tired. Multipoint input touchscreens are here. Live a little.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Hello Steve, thanks for the comment. Timelines are something I associate with Powerpoint presentations, and it’ll take me awhile to get used to it in ebooks. ;P

    I’m forcing myself to forget all I know about ebooks – what Sophie can do is beyond is beyond the scope of PDFs … and I’m only beginning to realize that. The challenge is in educating the average internet user about Sophie’s potential … any plans on a Wiki? I’d like to help out with documentation if possible.

    To both Tim and Steve, on contextual menus: I don’t see any compelling case against them from a usability aspect, though from your replies I must say you guys must have given much thought to ommiting them.

    I love contextual menus: I’m used to working with ‘em, and contextual menus in Photoshop, for example, are a godsend.

    That being said (I right clicked all over the Sophie interface the first time I loaded it ;P), I’ll respect your decision to omit contextual menus – at least for this stage. Perhaps in the future when Sophie is more or less stable and you guys can afford more time on multi platform integration.

    Keep up the good work! I’ll be constantly watching and poking about Sophie, and if there’s anyway for me to help out please let me know.

  • Steve Riggins

    What if “right click” brought up the object’s halo immediately? Would that satisfy the muscle memory that right clicking does *something*?

    I love contextual menus also – But we avoided them so we wouldn’t get lazy and *rely* on them as happens in many cases.

    If we can *mirror* functionality that is also available outside of the menu via other means, its not a bad idea. On the other hand, if we can use right clicking in a different, yet useful way….

    After all, what would you expect in a contextual menu beyond the basic cut/copy/paste? I think everyone clicks and says “oh, ok”

  • http://www.smalltalkconsulting.com John M McIntosh

    Yet another Sophie Developer points out we’ve uploaded demo books for people to look at. These books were available on the Sophie Server, but perhaps it’s not clear how to list and open them. So

    http://www.sophieproject.org/demobooks

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Hrmm. I right-click to access text formatting, to insert objects (timelines, perhaps?) … and to cut and paste. What about left clicking for text selection, and then right clicking for bringing up the Halo?

    Contextual menus are used for adjusting object properties, are they not? Well … what do you mean by ‘so we wouldn’t get lazy and *rely* on them as happens in many cases.’? You’re making contextual menus sound like a sin. ;P

    To Josh: That’s great news. Yeah – the server was kinda hard to understand, and I didn’t have enough time to poke about it. Plus you’ve released a new version of Sophie as well! I’ll go take a look.

  • Steve Riggins

    >>Contextual menus are used for adjusting object properties, are they not?

    It completely depends on the application. of course. The usage is not consistent, which is why I think users click to see what they can do, vs. click and know what should be there.

    >>Well … what do you mean by ’so we wouldn’t get lazy and *rely* on them as happens in many cases.’? You’re making contextual menus sound like a sin. ;P

    By “we” I mean the development team. its very easy to just say ‘throw that feature in the menu, and then use hierachical menus, and then menus within that menu” so the entire UI is a menu.

    By not using them, its like tying your hand behind your back for some physical event – It makes you think out of the box, not always correctly of course, but it sure makes things harder to get right.

    The same goes for the dreaded toolbar. ugh, toolbars in some applications are out of control. So many icons to handle whatever task you may want to do at some point in the future. Other apps have contextual tool bars, but if you’re on a 24″ screen, you’re playing a mouse game to go back and forth.

    So the idea was that halos + huds would replace contextual toolbars and menus.

    I’m perfectly happy with revisting this – it was harder when Sophie was on paper, but now that we can touch it, we might be able to come up with use cases, such as right click on a page to insert page before/after (or in the page list) etc, etc.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    By “we” I mean the development team. its very easy to just say ‘throw that feature in the menu, and then use hierachical menus, and then menus within that menu” so the entire UI is a menu.

    Alright, I understand now. Right clicks to insert pages would be pretty useful – but now that you’ve mentioned it I suppose the same thing can be done with an easy to understand icon, followed by drag and drop functionality.

    But I think the main case for contextual menus is that users are used to them. Why reeducate the user with a completely (cool) new UI if right click functionality is available?

    Maybe just basic elements like cut, paste, insert – the halo is very easy to understand, and I’m playing around with it in RC5.

    Looking better already!

    PS: What’s with the square icons next to the tabs on both sides of the screen? It turns black when I click it …. and?

  • Steve Riggins

    PS: What’s with the square icons next to the tabs on both sides of the screen? It turns black when I click it …. and?

    What square icons? I can’t see any in my builds.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’ve sent an email to you. Glad to be of service. ;P