iShell from Tribeworks is a new cross-platform authoring environment which appears to be a possible replacement for mTropolis or Apple's Media Tool. It might even be a competitor to Macromedia Director. They have a demo version that is available for download. They also have an interesting pricing policy; it's sold as a "membership" for $2,000 a year which provides users with tech support and free updates (for the year.)

I downloaded the demo version, but was disappointed to find that the documentation was limited to a reference manual and some sample files. No tutorial is available. Personally I like tutorials to help me get the "hang" of something. Since I don't have the time at the moment to spend a whole lot of time learning this new tool I've had to content myself with reading the thoughts of others; when you download the trial version you are added to a mailing list for iShell.

There has been a lot of activity on the list; with quite a bit of it relating to price and user perspectives. I think the company thought the list would mainly be for user support issues. Yesterday they changed the list so that subscribers can't automatically post to the list. Messages are now reviewed by a mailing list coordinator.

I read the list for the past few days and personally felt that while there was complaining, I've seen a lot worse on other lists. I think this is no way to endear yourself to skeptical customers.

Anyway, two people have given me permission to reproduce there comments about iShell below. I also have an email from a marketing person at Tribeworks offering their perspective on the tool:

Alberto Tabone at FaceToFace Productions wrote:

As multimedia developers since 1994 coming from the TV and cinema industry, we tried iShell because we feel there is a dangerous lack of modern, professional, easy to use multimedia authoring systems, that run on the Macintosh for cross-platform delivery using QuickTime 3.0 technology.

We don't use Director: we actually hate the software, preferring instead software like ClickWorks, that offer a comfortable and clear authoring environment without compromising too much on power. However, that alone isn't always enough and that's why we looked at iShell, hoping to find a modern tool that combined ease of use with power. Instead, we drowned in the foreign sea of an arcane interface, confusing at best, unable to even set up a basic screen of the likes you get in the very basic samples section.

Our first impressions are:

lack of a project-wide view: no tree view, no individual screens. We more or less understand the metaphor, but we think multimedia is made of screens, not objects. The user goes through a path, and the author needs to lay that ahead for him. Both need to know where they are and where they can go at a particular time, and if the author cannot see that at first glance, it's twice as difficult to implement a proper structure.

the interface is complex: even on a two monitor set-up it is difficult to see enough information about what one is doing. The hierarchy of objects, commands, events etc., all nested within each other, is extremely space consuming and again does not give a good project-wide view.

poor documentation: the reference guide does not include a quick start section so it is difficult to even experiment with basic multimedia.

media referencing: calling media objects with their full path, in internet style, is HORRIBLE. Aside from the fact that names get truncated -- making it impossible to identify media quickly -- it just makes media management more complicated than necessary. Besides, we don't care about the Internet. We make cd-roms. If we wanted to work in HTML-style authoring -- which we think is a primitive way of working -- we would switch to the likes of CyberStudio or PageMill.

Abolishing screens in favor of .k files, with lots of media associated with it, is just a way to confuse project management, and makes big projects hard to design and control. In a typical CD-Rom there are between 50 and 100 screens, are we to substitute that with individual .k files?

interface problems: Why does the program use New and Open... for the .k files, whilst for a project we need to use 'Select'? And once we've done that, .k files and projects get mixed together, so that you don't know what you are working at. And there's no possibility to test run a single .k file, only the whole project. Or is there? We can't even understand what we are testing....

We're concerned that all the samples provided are extremely basic in their nature: is this proof that creating multimedia with iShell is hard and time-consuming?


Fred Bals of Quantic Communications wrote:

Background: I've been a Director user for 5+ years, since the 3.1 days. From an interactive perspective, my company is pretty much a Director shop. My company, creates sales presentations, sales tools, product demos, trade show/seminar presentations, the normal slew of multimedia business collateral. We produce between 20 to 25 of these a year. Everything we do is delivered on the Windows 95/98 NT platform. We do most graphic, sound, and video development work on the Mac, final tweaking and programming on Windows 95. Every year we tend to get more Windows-centric.

Perspective on iShell:

Costs: $2,000 is too much. My opinion is you're falling into the same trap that mFactory fell into. Macromedia just announced Director 7, with an upgrade price of circa $500 per platform. Offer a competitive upgrade to current Director users of $500. Better, sell the software to all customers for $500. I'd consider trying iShell as an alternative to upgrading to 7 at that price point.

Why do I think it's too much? I can make Director do what I want in most circumstances, and can fake it when I can't. I'm not willing to give up the knowledge investment unless the alternative provides a significant advantage.

Documentation: The documentation is poor. The great percentage of all documentation sucks, including Director's, from a usefulness standpoint. However, Macromedia has a large enough user base that there are alternatives to the documentation. I suggest you reconsider your thinking on not having a written tutorial on *using* iShell to produce work, rather than documentation that simply explains functionality. Using your documentation, I didn't find iShell easy to use at all.

Authoring Environment: I've been using the iShell editor under Windows 95 without significant problems, but to hear from Tribeworks that that development environment is not recommended does not inspire me with confidence. Quantic is already supporting two development environments, and I wish it was only one. The last thing I want is another development environment. I wouldn't purchase the software -- even at $500 -- unless I could author under Windows 95/98.


Well, the above aren't exactly promising comments about the tool, and though I am a Director user it's not my intention to pillory the competition (unless it's subconscious.) I did receive the following comments from Marcel Siegle, the Mgr. Marketing Communications at Tribeworks to questions I had sent them.

1) The membership costs $2,000. Do you have to pay 2,000 for the second year to continue using the product, or would you only have to renew for updates and product support?

Yes and no, the Tribeworks membership is more then just iShell. We offer various support to our members. Here are some of the basic services we provide. Members get Win NT and Mac versions of the Editor, which are updated on a continuous basis. They receive the SDK, which gives them access to most of the source code. This way they can develop plug-ins and scripts , in order to customize their applications to their customers needs. They also receive level-1 customer support, which means they have direct access to the engineering team.

If members decide that they don't want to renew their membership, they can still continue using the product. This puts pressure on us to serve our members in the best way possible. There will be other options, besides the $2000 Membership, available soon, so stay tuned !

2) Do you have more information on the authoring environment than is presented at the website (such as screen dumps, specifications etc.)

You can download a trial version for free, we also included documentation (PDF format). You should also check out our press area, I think you will find some of our member's stories quite interesting.

3) Is the authoring environment available for Mac and Windows now, and is it identical?

Yes, you can author on Win NT or Mac and playback on Win 95/98, Win NT and Mac OS. There is no conversion necessary.

4) Do you have any feature comparison information comparing it with products such as Director and mTropolis? What products do you consider your primary competitors.

In a Nut shell: iShell can be best described as a "media manager". It allows for fast and easy cross platform deployment of media rich content. The internet is fully integrated, which means that applications created with iShell can retrieve their media via remote (internet) or localized storage, like CD-Rom or hard drive. Mediums can be mixed and content can be dynamically updated. iShell is very powerful, it allows non-programmers as well as programmers to build complex interactive multimedia applications.

The main difference with our competitors is, that we created an authoring environment that is much more intuitive and will enhance the productivity of multimedia developers.

One of the greatest features of iShell is it's plug-in architecture. Currently some of our members are writing plug-ins that will enhance iShell. As you can imagine this makes iShell extremely responsive to our customers need. This just one of the great advantages of the Tribeworks community.


Here are some quotes from users that Tribeworks supplied:

  • I spent some time with iShell this weekend and I feel that it may be a viable alternative to mTrop. My company spent a small fortune 2 years ago on mTropolis (20 licenses, training, etc.) and did get somewhat of a payback on the product.
  • I believe that iShell may be what we're looking for.
  • "This is incredible. Only a couple of weeks ago I suggested that this (not supporting Wired Sprite movies) was a problem with a sprite based movie I was working on and just like magic, Patrick and company have made this happen. I've never seen such dedication to satisfying potential customers before. You deserve to rule!!
  • "I've just spent 45 mins in the Editor. What can I say ? WOW. I have been working in mTropolis for the last couple of years and as you know mTropolis users need to look elsewhere for a decent authoring tool. I must say, I'm VERY impressed with iShell. The development speed could even surpass that of mTropolis. Just one major black spot at the moment. The price is also VERY impressive."
  • "OK, I'm convinced, (I'm stunned!) I don't see how I can live without iShell.


If you've had experience with iShell, let me know!

Michael D. Murie has been a multimedia consultant and developer since he first saw HyperCard in 1987. He has written for New Media magazine and worked on the CD-ROM The Jack Kerouac ROMnibus. He wrote the books "Macintosh Multimedia Workshop" and "Macintosh Multimedia Starter Kit" and was co-author of "The QuickTime HandBook." He can be reached at

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