Sophie’s Choice (a partial review)

April 10, 2007


With little fanfare, if:book released a very early version of Sophie, their rich content creation tool, last Wednesday. You can download it here. Sophie has been described variously as the next step in ebooks, a publishing tool for the rest of us, the first base of the networked book, so I was eager to see what it actually was.

After a short time playing around with it, I pretty much gave up. I’d show you the result, but I can’t figure out how to show it off as there’s no documentation and everything I did manage to do (which wasn’t much) I learnt from this video demo (uploaded to YouTube for ease of viewing, from this source). There’s something in the menus about ‘publish book for Apache server’, but that spewed out a bunch of files with no information on what to do with them.

Here’s some screenshots of the interface, the only useful menu, and the ‘halo’ tool configuration:

Sophie Screenshot Sophie Menu Screenshot Sophie Tools Screenshot

I’m not sure what’s being created here. Is this a standalone document creator? There’s very little you can do to your content once it’s in Sophie, so you need external text and image editors for most things (for example, I couldn’t work out how to search-and-replace the incorrectly-encoded apostrophes in my Gutenberg source text). Most of the tools are very simple, but then so are the results – this looks like a CD-ROM creator circa 1993. Because, er, that’s what it is…

Sophie’s either sixteen years in the making or nearly three depending on whether you go back to the beginning or not. The beginning was at The Voyager Company, an early electronic publisher … Back in 1992 Voyager released the Expanded Books Toolkit which enabled people to make simple e-books without any programming… Shortly thereafter, Voyager Japan released T-2 which has gone on to become the leading ebook software in its home country. In 1996 a group of Voyager employees formed Night Kitchen with the intent of creating an authoring/reading environment that would extend the Expanded Books Toolkit concept to include rich media. The result TK3 never officially came to market… The Mellon Foundation approached some of the TK3 team and asked them to build a new multimedia authoring program which would be open-source and would extend TK3 by enabling time-based events… That became Sophie. [Source]

Can you imagine the code? It’s clearly inspired by existing rich media applications such as Flash, but it’s target users – the technologically unskilled – don’t use such applications. How are they supposed to get their heads around concepts such as ‘flows’, ‘timelines’ and different server versions? And if they do get that, why aren’t they using the existing apps?

It’s all very disappointing, and I think if:book know it, which is why they haven’t supported or trumpeted this release in any way. But if they’re looking for feedback, here’s some, and we hope it’s constructive:

  • Figure out what it’s really for – “Sophie’s raison d’être is to enable people to create robust, elegant rich-media, networked documents without recourse to programming.” Can we get some examples? Are these just tarted-up ebooks, or something more?
  • Figure out who wants it – who are these sophisticated but unskilled users? I regularly use Adobe and ex-Macromedia products including Flash, Photoshop, InDesign etc., but I had a hard time figuring out Sophie.
  • Make it stand out – I don’t know what differentiates it from other media creation tools. Where’s the killer feature?
  • Really open source it – We found the developer site, but there doesn’t appear to much of a community here. The source forge lists about thirty developers, but only about five seem to have done much. What’s going on?
  • Smarten it up and Speed it up – it looks terrible and handles worse.

The potential is all there for… something, but I don’t think anyone, least of all its creators, know what. if:book is an academic, not a technical organisation – sorry guys, but I think you’d agree – and this project seems somewhat directionless. As an example, take the comments on the release notice – while there are some questions about the source, most want a long-winded discussion about the theoretical nature of the book.

Yes, this is an alpha release, but it’s still startlingly naked. We need some good examples of what this can do, and at least some basic documentation, to get any kind of a handle on what’s going on.

[UPDATE: Lots of discussion in the comments. Please read on…]


  1. I think that Sophie’s About page answers your questions

    Comment by Tamas Simon — April 11, 2007 @ 5:29 pm

  2. I think it’s pretty obvious that I don’t believe it does. It makes some very vague statements about “a digital media assembly tool” and “taking advantage of unique capabilities of the screen” – but it doesn’t give a single concrete example of a proposed Sophie project, let alone one that can’t be done a lot easier with a bunch of other, simpler programs.

    I really don’t want to be down on this program, but I’d really like to see some actual use cases.

    Comment by James Bridle — April 11, 2007 @ 6:25 pm

  3. “There’s very little you can do to your content once it’s in Sophie, so you need external text and image editors for most things ”
    This turns out to be incorrect. Right now there are a number of unpleasant bugs in the text editing that are being worked on but it is intended that users will be able to type in their text just like any other word processing app. There is a basic search capability provided within the status bar at the bottom of the book window that allows forward and backward searching. There is a ‘bulk search’ provided in the tools tab on the left of the app window that creats a list of all the places where the entered search phrase is to be found.
    As yet there is no UI for doing the ‘replace’ part of ‘search and replace’; sorry.
    Spellchecking is available in the tools tab; it has bugs but usually works reasonably well. There are problems with the underlying OS tools for spellcheck that limit what we can do; did you know that Apple’s spellcheck cannot learn new spellings via any accessible API?

    “Can you imagine the code?”
    Well, yes, since I worte a chunk of it. Its not Flash. It’s written in the Squeak dialect of Smalltalk. It is written in such a way that we hope people will be able to use our interfaces to add new capabilities later.

    “Smarten it up and Speed it up – it looks terrible and handles worse.”
    Do feel free to offer constructive suggestions about smartening it up. Quality input is always welcome. As for speeding it up, well we’re concentrating on making it correct first and speed will come later. We know about a number of problems with O(N^2) algorithms for example.

    “Really open source it” – It’s as open as we can make it. The source code is all there. There is an open mailing list. It’s free as in both beer and speech. What other things can we do to make it open in your view?

    Comment by tim Rowledge — April 11, 2007 @ 9:06 pm

  4. hi James!

    I am Steve Riggins, one of the Sophie Engineers. We take all feedback seriously and appreciate it. The File menu is a mess because we try to avoid menus, and its been sort of a dumping ground for things we have not found a better home for yet.

    We have not shipped a Reader yet, which is where published books would be read in, so that explains some of the confusion. Sophie will output stand alone documents, which you can distribute in any fashion similar to PDF, or via the Sophie Server, which is young also. The idea being a repository to not only distribute books, but to then share conversations about them.

    There is a fine line when building tools for the average person that can also do sophisticated things, such as time based media. We’re open to all feedback in this regard.

    Some of confusion can stem from the fact that a Sophie document can either contain manually made pages, or pages created from a flow of text, and terminology can always be worked on.

    As far as documentation, help and examples, yes we need much work in that department. Anything you generate we’ll be happy to link to!


    Comment by Steve Riggins — April 11, 2007 @ 9:46 pm

  5. James,

    thank you for taking the time to review Sophie. here are some answers to a few of your questions:

    • sophie is NOT a content creation tool per se, but rather an assembly tool. we haven’t set out to replace graphics, audio or video editors. we’ve put a couple of demo projects up today with more to come in the next days and weeks. if you want to get a full sense of what Sophie can do, try to download the Mozart Dissonant Quartet demo. and please remember that it isn’t the form that’s unusual here, but rather that this was made by a non-programmer in a long day (including lots of bug reports).
    • sophie makes standalone documents (the file format is based on XML). for now you need to “read” Sophie documents in the workspace. come the fall there will be a Reader which will allow documents to be free-standing.
    • although the Sophie server is working, right now you have to upload to it via a browser. soon you will be able to upload to the server from within Sophie.
    • i agree with all of your constructive criticisms. we will be working hard over the next several weeks to provide some documentation. the programming team will be working hard over the next several months to make the program better.

    Comment by bob stein — April 11, 2007 @ 10:51 pm

  6. Some demo books for Sophie have gone up on the server

    Without instructions it’s unclear how to sign onto the Sophie Server and access the books, so they are available for normal downloading now.

    Comment by John M McIntosh — April 12, 2007 @ 4:00 am

  7. Hey guys – thanks for all your comments. I would like to respond more carefully to all of them, but I don’t have a lot of time right now. I hope we can come back to this more fully next week.

    However, I think you’ve proven my point yourselves somewhat: Tim Rowledge, one of the lead developers, says that Sophie is a content creation tool; Bob Stein, Director of the Institute for Future of the Book and founder of The Voyager Company, says it’s not. That alone should make you worry.

    It’s great that some example books have now been made available, as I think this is key to explaining Sophie – but I’m afraid I found them pretty disappointing too. As I expected, they look exactly like old encyclopaedia CD-ROMS, like the World Book or Encarta. And while it’s great to make a tool for creating anything available for free, I do not get what’s so unique about Sophie’s approach – I’m only getting the bad stuff, like the fact that the Reader mode isn’t a true reader mode, but tries to edit stuff when I click on it, and there’s no obvious, intuitive internal navigation – I’m still using the back/forward buttons in the Sophie app.

    With respect to design – please just look at things like writeboard, Keynote, scribd – even Thinkfree – to see how easy creation and collaboration should be. This is what you’re competing against.

    I know this is your baby guys, and I want to support it (did you see my excited post earlier last week?), but you have to give your users – particularly the early adopters who will or will not create some buzz for you – a bit more to go on than this. They certainly don’t want to hear about your problems with O(N^2) algorithms, for example.

    Comment by James Bridle — April 12, 2007 @ 11:41 am

  8. Hi guys…
    I don’t see why others – even active MobileRead users – are not getting it… I think I’m getting it ;)

    re: the GUI
    I think it’s nice. I don’t understand why you’re avoiding menus though.

    re: documentation
    maybe you could open up your Drupal site so people can create content
    or you can set up a wiki

    re: confusion, what is it exactly etc.
    I think with something as revolutionary as Sophie (yes, I believe it is…) it’s important to get the terminology right and then to educate the public in an easy to understand way. I found some documentation on your developer site that explains the architecture… I think the same content can be rewritten so that an “average Joe” can understand it and will provide a great description

    Comment by Tamas Simon — April 12, 2007 @ 4:31 pm

  9. James, the reason Bob says ‘assemble’ and I say ‘edit’ if is a philosophical difference in how we see Sophie. Bob has *loads* of content sitting around he wants to build in to books; movies, pictures, sounds, prepared bits of text. Plain old text editing is almost beneath his notice in that context, where as it’s what I’ve been working on for what seems like ages. It’s *difficult* to do. Editing structures and maintaining correct structure before during and after, keeping annotations properly keyed – work on that for a while and you’d get a different viewpoint, I promise!

    However you look at it, the simple facts are that Sophie does (within the limitis of bugs and available developer time) provide an editing tool for structured text, with searching, spellchecking, undo/redo, markup, annotation (for both author and reader, independently sharable by groups working on the same book) *as well as* assembly tools for other content formats.

    Comment by tim Rowledge — April 12, 2007 @ 8:44 pm

  10. Tim – what I am suggesting is that that ‘philosophical difference’ is not helping end users figure out what they are supposed to do with this software. Reading both your comments it’s really not easy to see how they are compatible.

    I’m not suggesting that programming something like this is easy. I look forward very much to seeing the next version – and I look forward even more to hearing you guys talk about what novel uses Sophie can actually be put to.

    Comment by James Bridle — April 12, 2007 @ 9:00 pm

  11. wow.

    _here_ is where people (including the developers)
    are talking about sophie. good to know…


    Comment by bowerbird — April 22, 2007 @ 7:13 pm

  12. I am currently testing Sophie and have been reading some of the comments, a.o. the partial review at When I started searching for software topics to discuss in the Dutch Mac Fan magazine I came across Sophie and well thought: ‘what the heck am I going to do with this..?’ But that became clear after working my way through the tutorial. Sophie is both an authoring tool and reader. You have to switch to reader to use Sophie as a readertool. But it seems a promising piece of software. I think publishing companies will be interested when there is a reader for several platforms. I welcome this tool as a bookdesigner and author!!!

    Comment by Oscar Laurens Schrover — May 21, 2007 @ 9:50 am

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