One of the Information Age’s most powerful concepts is hypertext. Originally described by Ted Nelson, hypertext can take various forms, but the basic idea is that a word or phrase in one document can be a portal into another. Being obsessed with information retrieval, I’ve long been fascinated by hypertext, and some of my TidBITS reviews have described hypertextual applications.
Thanks to browsers and the World Wide Web, hypertext has become a familiar concept. Unfortunately, a Web browser’s implementation of hypertext has certain drawbacks:
There is no easy way to link a single phrase to several different texts, amongst which the user can choose. A browser’s hyperlinking is one-to-one, not one-to-many.
Sometimes you just want the user to be able to peep at a brief comment, without leaving the current document – something on the model of a footnote in a book. A browser isn’t very apt for this sort of thing; you can manage it with frames or a few browser-specific techniques, but not easily.
Sentius Corporation has a solution to both problems. The solution consists of two parts: an application, called RichLink Author, and a browser plug-in, called RichLink View.
Creating Rich Documents — In RichLink Author, you start with a styled text document, which can include inline pictures, rather like SimpleText. In a second pane of the document window, you attach comments to particular words. This document, meaning the text plus the comments, could be your final product; it can be opened and edited and read, and you could give it to someone else to read in their own copy of RichLink Author. But the document’s real purpose is to be made available over the Internet through a Web browser.
To do this, you use RichLink Author to generate an RLF file (meaning that the file’s name ends in ".rlf", standing, I suppose, for "RichLink file"); then you make an HTML document containing an <EMBED> tag linking to this RLF file. A user can now view the RLF by opening the HTML document in a browser which has the RichLink View plug-in. The RLF is displayed within the browser window as a scrolling pane of text with some controls at the bottom, much like a PDF seen through Adobe’s PDFViewer plug-in. And what about your comments? That’s the interesting part. The comments are initially invisible. When the user passes the mouse over a word to which comments are attached, the cursor changes to indicate their presence. When the user holds down the mouse button on such a word, a hierarchical contextual menu pops up under the mouse. This menu displays the comments.
This simple device, a hierarchical contextual pop-up menu to display comments attached to a particular word, is quite ingenious. Because it pops up, it’s temporary: the user never leaves the current document, and the menu vanishes when the mouse button is released. Because it’s a menu, it can contain many different comments simultaneously, but because it’s hierarchical, the user only sees one comment at a time. For example, suppose a word has three comments: an explanation, a criticism, and a joke. When the user clicks on the word, the pop-up menu might just contain the three items Explanation, Criticism, and Joke; but each of these is hierarchical, so if the user holds the mouse on Criticism, the actual text of the critical comment pops up to the right.
Multiple comments in a single category are possible; so, for example, holding the cursor over Criticism could show a further hierarchical menu with two items, Post-Structuralist and Feminist, each leading to a different comment. Comment text can be styled, and several special fonts (such as Japanese characters and phonetic symbols) are embedded in the plug-in. Even a single menu item is able to scroll, so a comment can be a fairly long paragraph, though to be sure things are easier if a comment is brief. A comment, instead of text, can be an ordinary browser link: you provide the URL of a Web page, an image, and so forth, and if the user chooses that item, the browser simply loads and displays it in the usual way (and so, multiple links can emanate from one stretch of text). A RichLink document, like a DOCMaker document, can consist of multiple sections; to navigate between them, there’s a pop-up table of contents, and arrow buttons at the bottom of the frame.
Dictionaries Extend Power — The remarkable thing about RichLink is that it’s free – not only the RichLink View plug-in, but also the RichLink Author program for creating RLFs. How, then, does Sentius expect to make any money from this product? Through dictionaries. A common reason for annotating a document is to assist a reader who isn’t quite fluent in the language. Typically, such a reader can make out the general sense, but there are a few words he or she just doesn’t know. With an RLF, there’s no need to spend any time hunting for those words in a paper dictionary; just click the word, and its definition appears.
Since you can’t be sure which words the reader won’t know, you’d like to supply comments defining every word (or all but the most common words). Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? But no: the process of creating these definition comments is completely automatic. Sentius supplies the dictionaries, in a proprietary format; so far, they have the American Heritage dictionary for defining English words in English, plus bilingual dictionaries for defining English words in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. You just tell RichLink Author that you want the document annotated with comments based on one or several of these dictionaries, and go get a cup of coffee. When you return, the comments have been provided, based on the dictionaries.
As a simple example, I’ve posted a Web page containing an embedded RLF. To view it, the plug-in must be installed before you start up your browser; you may also need to give your browser quite a bit of extra memory to prevent freezes. The page is a mock-up of an actual TidBITS article of mine from several years ago. The main idea here is that if (heaven forfend!) our French translators were temporarily incapacitated, we might want to post our pages with annotations to assist our French readers; so, word definitions in English and in French have been attached, automatically, with no effort on my part. I’ve also added manually one comment (to the phrase "a week" in the first sentence) and a couple of ordinary hyperlinks (to the words "University" and "Christchurch" in the first sentence). The whole thing took about five minutes of my time, though of course RichLink Author itself had to work longer to make the dictionary-based comments.
All That Glitters — RichLink Author’s interface is clever, but it’s also so clumsy and full of unnecessary surprises that it manages to make an easy concept difficult. I first discovered RichLink at the January 1998 Macworld Expo, and I’m disappointed that Sentius could, after all this time, ship a shrink-wrapped version which has matured so little. The product feels as if it has been subjected to little or no usability testing.
It is impossible to create a new document which is utterly blank; instead, every new document has two comment types which you must delete by hand to get started. As you’re creating and editing comments, you can tab from comment to comment, but tabbing to a comment does not permit it to be edited (you can’t type or paste); you must hit Return first, which is confusing and contrary to Macintosh conventions. There is no Save menu item; RichLink Author is constantly saving secretly, which makes one afraid to experiment.
Dictionaries, though huge, cannot be used directly from the CD; you must have lots of free hard disk space. Dictionaries can be browsed, but no menu item permits this; you must choose Startup Screen from the Window menu (!) and press a button in the resulting dialog. To dictate that comments should come from a dictionary, you have to say so in two different dialogs, which is maddening.
Installation is a nightmare of unexpected consequences. Without warning, several bitmap fonts are installed, bypassing any font management system (such as Suitcase or Font Reserve) you might use; one of these conflicts with a font you may already have (Mishawaka, from Eudora). RichLink’s file importing depends upon XTND, so a Claris Translators folder, full of filters, is installed in your Claris folder, regardless of what filters you may have in your Claris folder already. It took me some hours to straighten out the mess.
Documentation is not very good. The manual manages, in a mere 60 pages, to obscure a straightforward concept behind incomprehensible jargon; if I hadn’t known already what RichLink does and how to use it, I could never have guessed from this. The manual is available in printed form, and also as a PDF, and also as an RLF to be viewed in your browser. This RLF is a poor advertisement for RichLink itself, though, because its internal links between chapters don’t work; apparently, the feature which lets you jump between sections of a document is broken.
There is an online hands-on tutorial, which is initially mystifying. There’s no clue as to the purpose of the tutorial files; they’re BBEdit files, but they’ve been oddly disguised with Apple Guide’s icon, so it is up to you to figure out what they really are, guess which one comes first, and open it in a browser. These documents must be juggled along with two ReadMe files which provide important further details and caveats, and several example files. It’s all very confusing and frustrating.
Disconnected Links — RichLink is a brilliant idea, and it’s great that RichLink Author is free, but all these loose ends worry me. I don’t believe that Sentius isn’t eating its own dog food, that is, that the folks at Sentius don’t actually use RichLink much. Perhaps, with familiarity, they’ve become inured to the problems, or possibly they lack motivation to fix them, since users can’t pound the table and demand their money back. A good product should evince concern for details, should make hard things easier, should emanate a sense that your computer won’t crash nor your data be corrupted. RichLink Author doesn’t quite do any of that. But perhaps the idea itself is so powerful that users won’t mind the implementation.
RichLink requires a Power Macintosh running System 7.5.5 or higher, plus QuickTime 3.0 or higher. The manual claims that you need 6 MB of free RAM, but since RichLink Author prefers a whopping 39,506 K (38.5 MB) of RAM (and much more if you’re using any dictionaries), this seems unrealistic. The price of the commercial version (with dictionaries) starts at $500.