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Book to the Future, Part II

By Kushal Dave

While Professor Roman Kuc and Yale's librarians consider the merits and dangers of the digital textbooks, numerous corporations, including Microsoft, are already moving forward with large-scale plans to unveil new ways of looking reading books. Some plans target educational audiences, professionals, or the casual reader, and even others are trying to negotiate with the publishers first.

One enthusiatic corporate supproter of digital books is Dick Brass, Vice President, Technology Development for Microsoft. "Textbooks are one of the coolest potential applications for ebooks. Imagine carrying around one thin, light, LCD slate with—I dunno—10,000 books and articles in it. The book bag companies are going to hate it," he said.

However, developers must still tackle the problems which Kuc, and students Armando Valdés-Prieto BK '01 and William Edwards, PC '01 pointed out in this week's exclusive: digital books won't be anything like the same old paperbacks we know and love, or even the hardcover textbooks we dread buying each academic semester.

Therefore, developers are now seeking to reproduce everything we love about paper while adding all the nifty functionality of a digital document. The current generation of products products will include bookmarking and searching, but also the ability to highlight and make notes in the margins using a stylus. Bell Labs has already done some work on flexible sheets of transistors that would form the basis of eventual electronic paper, but it is far from being ready for market. There has been no word yet on trying to match the smell of paper or the warm, fuzzy feeling books give people inside.

But we like paper...

"The book bag companies are going to hate it."
-Dick Brass, Vice President, Technology Development, Microsoft
The digital page still has a ways to go before it can match the printed page in terms of resolution. A word printed by a printing press has around 2400 ink dots per inch and a laser printer generates 600 dots per inch. A computer monitor, by contrast, only has 72 dots per inch. With the rougher text, it is no wonder people hate to read on computer monitors. Microsoft has announced something called ClearType, which is supposed to make text easier to read on computer screens. But amidst all of the Evil Empire vaporware, someone else has made an actual demonstration of what can be done, at least on laptop LCD screens. Because every pixel in these displays is really a red, blue and green element, each can be utilized separately to give text smoother edges that treating each as a group that can be black or grey. A nifty little Windows program available at Gibson Research shows what kind of improved display might result.

Other work is being done at Xerox Palo Alto Research Corporation. Famous for discovering new technologies and then doing nothing with them, they are working with something called "Gyricon," which operates like the technology in Turing Option, rotating electrically-charged balls that are half white and half black. But they have still had no luck in getting high resolutions. Lois Wong of Xerox PARC explains that it may still be put to other uses. "Although not yet perfected, the technology is currently at the state where it is suitable for development for the first set of applications. We are currently engaging potential partners in both manufacturing and application areas and see a bright future for this technology," he said.

As to the quality of current products, at least one person at PARC doubts they will be very successful in the education market. Bill Schilit sees three possible scenarios: electronic reading appliances could be mandated, people could see the long-term cost effectiveness of the appliances and purchase them voluntarily, or the features on electronic books could be so compelling that people will pay the initial premium. He thinks the first two eventualities are improbable, focusing instead on developing the third. "The current batch of e-books do not offer features that make them much better than paper. I expect that within 4 years we will see a number of much more sophisticated reading appliances on the market," he says. "Getting the publishers onboard is the easy part because the economics work for them."

Similar research is being done being a company called E Ink. The response from E Ink's Russ Wilcox regarding applications in education was terse: "We have not held any publicly announced discussions with textbook companies." Good luck, Russ.

Even Digital, now owned by Compaq, did research in this direction. A November 1998 report on a project called Lectrice found "reading appliances are indeed crossing the threshold to practicality, but that a number of challenges remain to make these devices fully competitive with some of the more subtle advantages of paper. At the same time, the inherent advantages of electronic media make the long-term prospects for reading appliances very compelling."

. . . And they like money

Despite Schilit's optimism, it may not actually be that easy to get publishers on board. Jonathan Hulbert of Wadsworth Publishing sums up the stance of many. "We have NO interest in simply making our print items into static electronic versions, but rather seek to understand the unique attributes and advantages of a rich electronic learning environment which will be highly customizable to the needs of individual learners."

At Wiley, Susan Spilka offers up some corporate babble. "In the short term Wiley, like most college publishers, will primarily use textbook websites as ancillary support for instructors and students. Direct revenues in this environment are not likely to be significant. For the near-term we will build products with real competitive advantages based on web and other media components," she says., the web-based textbook store, has its doubts about the spread of electronic book technology to textbooks. Eric J. Kuhn, CEO, was not very optimistic about the prospects. "While I believe strongly in technology and technological advancements, I also believe that there are several traditional products that technology will not replace so quickly. One such item is a textbook. Admittedly, ebooks are first generation products and I look forward to seeing them advance," Kuhn said.

Emily Glassman at offered a generic answer in response to the possibility of taking the weight load off of students' backs. "Electronic book technology is still in the very early stages. In terms of textbooks, we evaluate the way we serve all of our markets on an ongoing basis and talk to our customers so that we can continue to improve over time," she said.

Of the several companies taht have released actual products, like Rocket and Everybook, Inc., all participants want to get the support of the publishers like Wiley and Renee Reyes-Estevez of SoftBook Press,takes the direct approach to this problem. "Encouraging publishers to aggressively support the platform is key. Given that secondary students' reading needs are more homogeneous than those of students in higher education, its possible that that market may develop more quickly," she says. "SoftBook was created to expand the availability of reading material, not to replace books." She also reminds people that her product, like Everybook, is targeted at professionals, not like Rocket's product, which focuses on consumers.

A quabble over standards

Another large issue which the ebook developers face is the questions of standards: now that therer are many different versions of the same media out there, should all companies conform to a single standard, and, if so, what standard should that be? Many publishers are participating with Microsoft on an open book standard, which Nuvomedia also has some involvement in. Developed in conjunction with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, it is supposed to be an HTML-like standard for ebooks. There are two camps on the standards issue that seem to be forming: Microsoft, Nuvomedia and friends supporting the open book standard, and some members of the smaller companies, like SoftBook, trying to lobby for other formats.

Kelly-O'Keefe doubts this standard means anything, and favors the Adobe Portable Document Format, which is what her company's products use. "The Open eBook Standard idea is little more than an effort to force publishers to decrease the quality of their publications and bear all of the cost of converting their archives to a web format that has changed radically three times in 20 years. There is a greater likelihood of the PDF format evolving to include web languages than there is a standard web document language ever achieving the proven quality and universality of PDF," she says. Kelly-O'Keefe cites statistics pointing to the already prevalent use of PDF.

Back at Softbook, Garth Conboy, Vice President of Software Engineering, disagrees with his colleague. "While the Open eBook proposed standard is not specifically targeted at presentation of textbooks, rendering of such content is certainly within the universe of content envisioned to be supported. There are a number of 'higher education' participants involved in drafting the standard," he said.

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