Why Sophie 1.0 excites me more than today’s E Ink machines—or .epub

image I've tried Sophie 1.0, and here's the news: It's more exciting to me than either E Ink machines or the IDPF's .epub standard.

Ever since I heard about E Ink, I've been a big fan of it. But although I own a Sony Reader and read a lot, I don't use the Sony. Let me explain why. The main benefit of E Ink is readability. Unfortunately this resulted in slow page-refresh times.

Negatives of today's E Ink

Current E Ink devices:

  • Are monochrome black and white.
  • Offer slow page turns and screen refreshes---no video.
  • Have slow CPUs - no interactivity.
  • Essentially exist just offline offline, for all practical purposes.

Advancements will be coming out of the labs but practically that's what we have today. 

This makes E Ink devices great for reading long "books" such as novels and lengthy collections of poetry---things that I'd classify classical literature. Unfortunately for E Ink devices, however,  the trend in reading or literacy if you like is quite the opposite.

What E Ink devices don’t give you

People do most of their reading online. The Web offers:

  • Online access to information.
  • Rich media via plug-ins—music, images, video.
  • Interactivity via user-side scripting and back-and-forth interaction with Web servers.
  • Color.

I think this whole .epub thing that folks on this blog are so excited about is a dead-end street. It’s basically taking the Web offline and losing a lot of its benefits. Look at the specs. It’s a zipped HTML with some add-on that only a few people see as a big deal. Not even JavaScript. The trend, however, is for all devices to be constantly online; and .epub assumes the opposite.

Why Sophie’s better

So why am I more excited about Sophie reader? Well, it:

  • Supports the direction where books are going.
  • Gives full support for rich media. It makes it easy for authors to work with it.
  • Puts this media on a timeline so that it can be synchronized with the reader’s advancement in the text.
  • Is interactive.
  • Is online.

I suggest that people try out the demo books to get an understanding of how revolutionary it is.

Of course, there is a lot to improve, and, of course, there are certain design artifacts that one could debate. They all don’t matter, however. Sophie is fairly stable, feature rich and usable for a first release.

Two flavors–the reader and the authoring tool

Sophie comes in two forms. The Sophie Reader is a read-only dummied down version for people who only want to read Sophie books. Then there is the full version of Sophie that is more of an authoring tool.

Authoring is reasonably easy, I would say. And good documentation, tutorials and video are available from the Sophie Project Web site. Sophie can also hook up to a server, an online repository of books.

I’ll end with a question: Would there be interest to create a community supported Sophie server to host public domain and Creative Commons licensed works?

Related: Sophie 1.0 now downloadable: E-text reader-writer with multimedia and network capabilities, an earlier TeleBlog post.

Moderator: I’m a big supporter of the .epub standard for e-books, but am delighted to publish Tamas’s not-so-flattering comparison of it with Sophie—not just out of respect for his freedom of expression, but also to help get the IDPF off its rear end so it will improve .epub, perhaps with help from a network-oriented company such as Google. To give one example, .epub badly needs reliable interbook linking. On some other matters I would disagree with Tamas. The issues aren’t just marketing-related, but also literacy-related, and we’ll be a poorer society if the popularity of long, self-contained narrative—yes, novels without links—falls off. I’m all for Sophie-style capabilities. But let’s not apply them everywhere. For novel reading, I’m less worried about interactivity than, say, the quality of display. Meanwhile many thanks to Tamas for a good, provocative essay! – D.R.

13 Comments on Why Sophie 1.0 excites me more than today’s E Ink machines—or .epub

  1. I must admit I don’t understand the appeal of this. It’s no fun sitting at my desk reading a book on a computer monitor that’s a few feet away. The whole point of the Sony reader, et al, is to be able to hold a book in your hand while sitting in a comfortable chair. The Sophie paradigm seems to be based around reading a book on a computer. Not very ergonomic, imho.

  2. Brian Darvell // March 29, 2008 at 10:01 am //

    I have to agree. I do agree that it might be interesting to incorporate all those multimedia features into a story but, truly, reading a book or many of them on the computer is not much fun.

  3. @ Paul: we can hope for ‘nettops’ that would be ‘lappable’ with decent full-color screens that would run Sophie. The Sophie paradigm says nothing about the device on which you read the books, and it is possible for an eInk device to incorporate a Sophie reader (which much-diminished capabilities).

    What I find most intriguing about something like Sophie is the potential to have copyrighted, even (ugh) DRM’s books that have the capability of being annotated by students. Your notes and reflections would be stored in a separate linked file that would not touch the root drm’d file. In other words, part of the Sophie-book would be editable (the notes and annotations you add) and part would not be (the textbook).

    Having only explored the Sophie reader, not the bookmaker, I don’t know if Sophie allows for that kind of thing. I don’t know if epub does either.

    I agree with David that for novels, Sophie adds little; html would include everything needed, including illustrations.

    But for textbooks, the full-on multimedia capabilities would be wonderful for science books, with video clips of experiments; history books, with video clips of famous events, speeches, etc; anthropology books, with video clips of representatives of all people in the world looking at you and saying ‘hello’ in their native tongue; language books with audio clips and video clips of native speakers rehearsing practice dialogues so students can hear the full lines as they are commonly pronounced — etc.

    ePublications such as magazines and newspapers, in Sophie editions, would also steal a march on their televised competition.

    Bands could release music videos in Sophie editions with liner notes, lyrics, links to the bands’ websites, and so forth.

    All this is very exciting. Now, most of the ebooks I read are Project Gutenberg oldies, and text-only, and for such I’d prefer a small device with good readability; Sophie editions would give me a few additions (such as being able to note where a scanno shows up in a PG book) but would, I think, not be worthwhile on the whole to me. But I can see lots of situations where Sophie on a nettop tablet would be a tremendous step forward.

  4. First, I agree that reading at your desktop is not fun. I think Sophie (the project) requires the existence of easily portable devices with multimedia capability and an always-on or always-available broadband connection.

    Unfortunately, I still see little use for this project in most of what I read – fiction. Granted such features may be great in an academic book, certainly it would be an improvement to have video in some science books. It would also be useful to have a connected forum if several students are assigned a group project on a passage from a book. In general, however, I do not understand the need or desire for reading the notes and comments of other readers during a story. Reading a review before deciding on a book is very different, but once I start reading, I prefer to form my own opinions. It is getting to seem like people cannot decide what they like until they hear from the crowd.

    As for the extra features, an occasional illustration is one thing, and often adds to a book, but most of this goes far beyond. Frankly, the extra features offered here remind me of the early web sites where many people thought that lots of music and animated GIFs made for great site design. Usually it was simply over-produced and distracting. Today, while I do most of my reading online, I know which sites allow me to set the environment the way I want it. At other sites, I download the story and open it in a simple reader (generally, Tofu) where I can adjust the experience to my preferences.

    Sophie will be of great use in specific books and genres, but I sadly expect that, if it catches on, it will spread beyond that.


  5. I disagree with what you said about rich-media and .epub.

    .epub can and will support rich media thanks to the way OPF is designed: you can embed whatever you want as long as you define a proper fallback.

    Adobe is already advertising the fact that you can use Flash to create interactive documents. But .epub could also use any other technology, like Microsoft’s Silverlight for example. You’ll just need proper support on your reading system… Right now, they already defined supported vocabularies and image formats, but a next generation of the standard could also add recommended support for music and video.

  6. I agree with Tamas’ observations on the limitations of e-ink. And I certainly don’t see why anyone would want to read a novel at their desktop. Paul, buy a Macbook Air! :-)

    E-ink is a technology caught between proprietary interests–such things move at a snail’s pace. The web is open, it’s evolving fast, and .epub adopts some of its best practices and technologies. That said, David is right that .epub does very little to resolve the problem of interbook linking, and nothing at all to address the more crucial problem of how to deep-link, or point at arbitrary chunks of text. That turns out to be an achilles heel for .epub, because it’s at the heart of all annotation and linking proposals.

    Finally, on the matter of multimedia: it’s up to authors to keep it from being distracting. Don’t blame developers for allowing it to happen!


  7. This sounds like a program to turn books into ginormous multi-GB monstrosities with lots of unnecessary stuff.

    Perhaps it’d be great for reference. But why that over a good *website*?

  8. I was going to comment on the use of multimedia in epub, but Hadrien beat me to it. It certainly is possible to use non-supported file types. I do hope that in the future, some of these feature-rich file types get added to the epub standard.

    As for the claim that current E ink devices “Have slow CPUs – no interactivity”, this is partially false. The no interactivity that Tamas complains about is due to the slow screen refresh of current E ink screens, as well as the fact that most E ink devices do not have a touch-screen. The CPUs in these devices are actually the same ones used in many modern PDAs. These same PDAs are interactive, surf the web and play video. They just have faster, color screens that are touch sensitive.

    I’m sure that projects like Sophie will find some use. Tamas is obviously a fan. For me, the biggest drawback to software like Sophie is the very fact that it REQUIRES an internet connection. I don’t want my reading restricted only to areas where I can get an internet connection. I want to be able to carry some content with me and use it anywhere. I also don’t like this “always on” requirement for another reason–this puts you at the mercy of the content provider to impose restrictions, additional fees, DRM, etc. And what if that content provider disappears?

    Microsoft, Google and others are already offering “live” word processing, spreadsheet, etc. software on the net. How am I going to write a letter when I can’t connect to the net? The same applies to Sophie.

  9. You forgot that e-ink isn’t backlit, which is why I will never buy an e-ink device. Ever. I’ll stick with old technology until something better comes out. :)

  10. Thanks for all the comments.

    re: .epub
    thanks for correcting me re: plugins.
    What about JavaScript? I still feel /epub is only taking away from what we already have on the web and not adding much more.

    re: device support for Sophie
    I agree, we tatally need a good handheld/pocket whatever. I like the iPhone but I think its screen is too small for reading.
    eInk suffers frrom the fact that devices are “too dedicated”
    I can imagine Sophie running or more laptop lik devices where it will be “just another app”.
    Could even be ported to the iphone

    re: “But why that over a good *website*?”
    Excellent question.
    I’d prefer if Sophie provided the same easy of use for authoring but supported web formats such as HTML for text instead of RTF. The output could also be a website. It will be interesting to see if their document and container format catches on.
    Keep in mind it’s version 1.0… there’s a long way to go
    and it’s free and open source… so there’ll always be someone to pick it up from where others left of and improve it further.

  11. Your criticism of .epub is correct. Not to allow scripting in .epub seems to me as proposal to return in the era of web 2.0 to the plain HTML of early nineties.
    Javascript is simply essential to many e-publishing projects (ebookglutton is quite good example), but IDPF does not consider this question as urgent. They refer to it as direction which might be important in the future.

    Sophie would be great if it were based on HTML. As it is not it will be simply another not well supported format. Although Sophie project and format is quite interesting, it is not the format to choose for real world projects.

  12. I’ve only briefly toyed with the demo books in the Sohpie Reader, for me this does not feel revolutionary. Am I missing the point, or are many (all) of the Sophie features not already available in other technologies such as PDF, Flash, Silverlight or others?

  13. ePub may be an interesting format for PCs, but not really for e-ink devices when it comes to elegant text and rich media. The Sony Reader shows a limited support, due to the lack of resources like Flash, high-end managers, processor speed,… It is nice to have it, but for optimized interactivity and rich content, others formats from Ganaxa or Asian companies are a lot better.

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