As Microsoft strides into the emerging ebook market, Tim Greenhalgh finds the pioneers while Richard Harper and Abigail Sellen look at how new tech alters the way we read.
Decades after they first appeared in science fiction, electronic books have finally closed the gap between dream and reality. Early adopters in the United States will be delighting in their toys by Christmas. Four companies have models either ready for market or due for launch early next year (see panel right).
The ebooks share common characteristics of ease of use - the Softbook for example begins working as the reader flips open the leather "book cover". But none claims to be the replacement for the book.
Each of the platforms has won significant support from established or new publishers, who have more willingly embraced the new technology in contrast to their defensive and slower response to the development of the world wide web.
Each device is aiming for a different slice of the estimated Pounds 30 billion a year book market and so the spectre of a standards war is beginning to loom. For corporate and institutional book buyers, the devices represent an opportunity to reduce their costs substantially. Those most impressed thus far are the big-spending state education departments in the United States and companies with heavy needs for technical books.
In a significant move Microsoft last month announced at the world's first ebook conference that it was joining major publishing firms, electronics manufacturers and ebook innovators to establish a set of open technical standards. The Open eBook standard will be developed by Microsoft and more than a dozen companies involved in the publication and distribution of electronic texts.
"There is no question that eventually electronic books will share the spotlight with books printed on paper," says Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman. "The question is: How does it start? Microsoft is in a unique position to help bring the publishers and ebook makers together. By working early with the various industry players to create a common set of standards, we hope that ebooks will become a reality for consumers and the market."
The firms working with Microsoft include publishers Bertelsmann, Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster and Time-Warner Books; the online bookseller barnesandnoble.com; the manufacturer Hitachi Ltd and Audible, the web's leading electronic distributor of audiobooks.
Microsoft's interest in ebooks has increased as pioneer software companies begin to demonstrate and sell applications that enable publishers to reformat their archives for download and display, particularly on handheld computers and appliances running the Windows CE operating system.
One of the ebook pioneers, Librius sounded a gentle note of alarm over the move. Don Ledford, vice-president of technology, says: "We must take care that we do not allow well-intentioned standards to stifle creativity and flexibility in systems design, especially at the device level. It is foolish to believe that a device protocol standard defined today will be the right solution even one or two years from now, given the speed of change in this business."
But Clayton Lewis, vice-president of business development at the company adds: "One of the publishing industry's greatest concerns is that they could spend large amounts of time and money digitising books for use in electronic delivery systems only to find out that they used the wrong format."
Security is also a very pressing issue that may be addressed in the standards development. Publishers are understandably concerned that copyright protection is difficult to enforce in an open network environment. Encryption is more vulnerable to "cracking" when the analyst can access unencrypted text, which is always the case with ebooks. The key tension arises from the need to provide a universal standard that cuts publishers' reformatting costs by allowing display on the widest selection of platforms while maintaining a robust security.
Each of the pioneer ebook platforms addresses this problem in a similar way at present, narrowly defining the display device with a high level of security.
Librius protects its book titles ensuring that each book is unique to the individual purchaser and may not be read in another ebook. It is not possible to print or copy the titles stored in the ebook, nor can the books be displayed or copied to storage on a PC. However, Librius offers the option of allowing designated titles to be downloaded to other vendors' secure ebook devices and to less secure devices such as desktop and palmtop computers.
Publishers are also harnessing developments in traditional delivery in response to the onslaught of newer technologies. Macmillan, for example, is using state-of-the-art digital printing to allow readers to request a single reprint of academic titles, and will extend this to all out-of-print titles next year.
Meanwhile in the US, Joe Jacobson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working on a development that may well provide the perfect blend of electronic delivery with the look and feel of traditional paper storage. Jacobson believes it is possible to construct an ebook that looks and feels like a printed book but which can be erased and loaded with new titles. The ultimate aim is to enable the book to download data from the air, rather like a pager network.
The leather bound Softbook will launch in time for Christmas. It measures 8.5 inches by 11 inches and weighs 3lb. The screen resolution is 72dots per inch. Titles are distributed over a proprietary network rather than the internet. A rechargeable lithium ion battery pack provides up to five hours' viewing with a one-hour recharge. The Softbook costs $299 (Pounds 180) and low-volume users will pay $9.95 (Pounds 6) a month fee for access to information resources and the bookstore. Titles are priced individually.
Everybook Dedicated Reader
Nearest in look and feel to a book. Two full-page (8 by 10.5 inches, 13.3 diagonal) touch screens. Various windowing features. 16-million colour palette, resolution 350 dpi prototype, 450 dpi production. Holds up to 500,000 pages (1,000 books) on each removable PC card. Weight 3.7 lbs, size 9.75 by 11.75 inches when closed. Three models: professional $1,500 (Pounds 900), study $1000 (Pounds 600), personal $500 (Pounds 300). www.everybk.com
Librius Millennium e-Book
Available for order in December at $199 (Pounds 120). About the same size as a paperback book. Weighs less than 1lb. Simple buttons turn the "page". Users need a PC or Mac to download books from the company's web site. The e-Book can store about ten full length illustrated books. The display can handle any language and offers adjustable type sizes. Rechargeable, removable batteries operate for up to 18 hours. Backlit screen. www.librius.com
The recently launched Rocket eBook is around the size of a standard paperback, weighs 22oz and can store about 4,000 pages of words and images. Rechargeable battery life is up to 17 hours and the text can be browsed, searched, annotated, underlined, linked and referenced using a stylus. Text is downloaded from an online bookstore to a Windows PC and transferred to the $500 (Pounds 300) device. Monochrome screen with 105 dpi resolution.