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SIMA Report on Multimedia Toolbook


Asymetrix ToolBook 3.0 is a mature PC based authoring tool which is unlikely to ever appear on other platforms. Multimedia ToolBook 3.0 is a superset of ToolBook 3.0 which adds sound and video features to the basic ToolBook engine. Applications developed in ToolBook 3.0 will run under Multimedia ToolBook 3.0 but the reverse is not true - even if no multimedia features are used.

Asymetrix are continuously developing their ToolBook product line both in terms of add-ons, such as the Database Connection and the CBT Edition, and in terms of the core system itself - ToolBook 4.0 is the latest version and 5.0 (or Series II as it will be known) is currently in beta testing. Each subsequent version of ToolBook provides a high degree of backward compatibility but this has never been 100% in previous upgrades. However, neither 4.0 or 5.0 differ substantively from 3.0 with regard to the core ToolBook engine; instead, they each provide increased support for novice users through Specialists (wizards) and extra add-on extensions around the core. The critique and description of ToolBook 3.0 in this report applies equally well to 4.0 and 5.0 too.

ToolBook has proven to be a productive and flexible authoring tool suitable for implementing a wide range of applications. Applications may be distributed along with the ToolBook runtime royalty-free and, if correctly used, can be installed on an end-user system without needing to make changes to Windows initialisation files or the system boot configuration files. ToolBook applications may be run across a network although, realistically, graphically intensive programs are best run from a local drive (regardless of authoring system). Also, ToolBook books are able to communicate, exchange data with and manipulate other applications on the system.

All this flexibility and power is not without cost: although marketed as an authoring tool, ToolBook is in fact a full blown programming system. ToolBook is often adopted as an authoring tool by non-programmers on the grounds of its apparent ease of use. Indeed, initial progress on a project can be impressively fast. However this initial ease of use and rapid progress can be deceptive. As with many programming environments, finishing off the last 20% of an application requires a lot of specialist knowledge to provide the finishing touches and solve the inevitable hand full of problems which are unique to this particular application. However, because the first 80% of a ToolBook application can be so (relatively) easily constructed without too much specialist knowledge, the last bump in the learning curve is particularly steep and high. For small projects on a tight schedule, this last step can be prohibitively steep. Unfortunately, the fact that this "wall" is hit near the end of a project rather than being obvious from the outset means that, in the experience of the authors of this report, a lot of ToolBook projects run into problems in this last 20% and have to call in a consultant or revise the schedule and budget. Asymetrix do a very good job of selling ToolBook as an easy to use system but this masks this "completion problem" and can leave developers feeling very frustrated.

Given the numerous positive features of the package this "completion problem" should not be taken as a reason for not adopting ToolBook as a development tool - provided that experienced help is available or that the developer is willing to invest a substantial amount of time learning to program in OpenScript.

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