Electronic books almost ready for switch on

Not quite ready for prime time, but getting a lot closer.

That's the message from last week's Seybold San Francisco, one of publishing's biggest conferences and trade shows, where e-books were very much front and center. It's also the message from people at companies like Microsoft and Adobe, which announced major e-book initiatives, moves designed to bring e-books one step closer to mass market acceptance.

There was another message last week - print isn't about to disappear anytime soon, if ever. But people who work in the publishing industry believe print will change and that e-books will eventually dominate areas like reference books, work-related materials, trade journals, college text books, and even the recreational reading market.

Most people have probably heard of electronic books (largely thanks to author Stephen King's decision to publish his novella "Riding the Bullet" only on the Web), but the numbers of people who've read them are relatively small.

Even among publishing professionals who actually own e-book reading devices, only 33 percent of them are likely to purchase an e-book and read it on a computer, a personal digital assistant (PDA, such as a Palm Pilot), or an e-book reading device, according to a survey done by Seybold Research.

E-books, it seems, face four major problems:

*Incompatible standards, which might be called the Microsoft - versus - everybody - else problem;

*There just aren't enough titles available for people to read;

*Inadequate display technology, which doesn't allow for a pleasant reading experience;

*Ineffective copyright protection, which suggests the 'Napster' question of content piracy will loom large over the industry for a long time.

But players in the industry are taking steps to address the latter three issues. For instance, Microsoft and Adobe, probably the two companies that will slug it out for control of the e-book publishing industry, announced deals with major booksellers last week. First, Microsoft announced a partnership with Amazon.com, which will make the Microsoft Reader technology the preferred format for Amazon's future e-Bookstore.

Meanwhile, officials at Adobe (best known for creating the PDF format - probably the world's most popular format for storing digital information) announced that they were acquiring Glassbook, a popular e-book reading program, and that the company had signed a deal with Barnes & Noble to convert its entire catalog into digital format by 2005.

But what's also interesting about the Adobe model is that company officials believe e-books will become important because of the ability to print them on demand.

"We want to make the word 'out of print' obsolete," said Stephen Riggio of barnesandnoble.com. "And often that content will be printed - either at home on high-quality printers which are now available for a fraction of what they once cost, or at a local Barnes & Noble store. I can see the day when you'll go to a store, order a book, sit and have a snack, then pick up your printed copy and leave."

Another market that e-book sellers believe will be huge is college textbooks. Publishers like Bedford, Freeman & Worth who specialize in these materials have already begun to digitize their catalogs.

In the near future, students will buy only the chapters they need from a book. This works for both parties: Students will save by not having to pay for parts of texts they don't use, and publishers will earn more because the reselling of textbooks by students will disappear.

While there were no major announcements about display- screen technology, people who work with screen technology, like Gary Starkweather of Microsoft Research, say high-quality resolution, the same as paper, will be available on PDAs and hand-held displays within the next three to five years.

The biggest topic of conversation during the conference was something from a completely different industry - the battle between software company Napster and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

"It's about everybody's right to sell a product and not just about big companies making money," said Dick Brass of Microsoftduring a keynote speech. "The key to avoiding piracy is for us to establish an honest market place from the beginning. The RIAA chose not to be the first to move. I don't think our industry will make that mistake."

Mr. Brass had harsh words for those who support the Napster model of free downloads of copyrighted material, calling them either "trust-fund marxists," who "have already made their money and want to stop you from making yours" or "digital defeatists" who complain that the technology has already gone too far to derail services like Napster.

Once these factors - content, better displays, and content protection - come together, and the standards issue is resolved, industry experts think that the consumption of e-books will rival or pass that of printed materials, probably sometime in the next decade.

"There is an overemphasis on display and devices," says Adobe's Mike Looney, the senior director of marketing for the firm's e-books. "We are voracious readers online now. And e-books will make books come alive in a way that we have never experienced in a paper format. You just wait and see."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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