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.