A New Chapter For E Books

After many false starts, practical digital readers are hitting the market

In 1945, Presidential science adviser Vannevar Bush designed a desk-sized device called Memex, generally regarded as the first electronic book. Memex never got off the drawing board, making Bush the first casualty in a long line of failed electronic Gutenbergs. But there's a good chance that a half-century of futility is about to end. The first practical electronic books are hitting the market, and they could mark a major change in how we get information.

Two E-books, designed to simulate the experience of reading a standard book as nearly as possible, should be available in November. Of course, you have always been able to read a book on a computer. But few people do, and most print out anything longer than a page or two. For one thing, the setup required for typing, even on a laptop, puts the screen too far away for reading. Worse, every time you hit the "page down" key, your eyes have to search to find where you stopped reading, a process that literally gives many people headaches.

The SoftBook from SoftBook Press (650 463-1800) and the RocketBook from NuovoMedia (650 327-5110) differ greatly in design and content, but they have important things in common. They are basically flat tablets that you hold, and read, just like a book. A simple rocker switch lets you move cleanly forward or back one page, without scrolling. You can use a stylus on the touch-sensitive screen to leave bookmarks and make notes in the margins. With a minimum of other simple controls, you select a book from the library stored on the unit, change basic settings, adjust type size, and control downloads.

The $499 RocketBook is designed as a sort of electronic paperback. The 1.4-lb. reader is about the size and thickness of the latest Grisham and displays pages of text on a 4 1/2 in. by 3 in. monochrome screen. It's light enough and bright enough to read in bed. And though the type is nowhere near as sharp as even a cheap paperback, I found it acceptable for extended reading.

To load a book into the RocketBook (and also to recharge the batteries, which are good for about 17 hours of reading), you put the reader into a cradle that's attached to a Windows PC. You then purchase a book from an online bookstore--barnesandnoble.com has already signed on--and download the text from the Web. Random House and St. Martin's Press will be among the publishers making titles available.

While NuovoMedia is going after the mass market paperback, SoftBook sees its future as a supplier of technical and professional information. SoftBook is bigger, with an 8 in. by 6 in. screen, so it has bigger type. It also displays graphics more clearly. On the minus side, it weighs nearly 3 lb. and gets only about 4 1/2 hours from a battery charge. Most important, SoftBook does not require a computer. It uses a built-in modem to fetch text from SoftBook servers, which will offer both publicly available texts such as Westlaw legal publications and private libraries of specific corporate information, such as manuals or training materials.

SoftBook will cost $299 if a buyer commits to spending $20 a month on E-books or $599 for an outright purchase. Because market testing indicated that customers want recreational reading, too, SoftBook also plans to offer what CEO James Sachs calls "an airport bookstore" of popular titles with a far narrower selection than RocketBook.

Other companies plan to bring out digital books next year, but I think SoftBook's approach is the most promising. Except for the ability to create instant large-print books, useful to readers with vision problems, RocketBook offers few advantages over an ordinary book--and titles may not be much cheaper than discounted paperbacks.

WEIGHT LOSS. SoftBook shows promise because its success won't depend on being better or cheaper than paperbacks. It is designed to replace the stacks of reference material and manuals that professionals and technicians now cram into attache cases. Its large format and subscription model would work well for electronic periodicals. Ultimately, it could replace the 20 lb. or so of textbooks that students lug in backpacks.

These new E-books show typical defects of first-generation products. They're too expensive and too heavy. The displays can't rival print on paper. Battery life, particularly SoftBook's, is too short. But if history is any guide, better, lighter, and cheaper machines will come along.

I love books, and electronic versions won't replace print in my heart or on my overflowing bookshelves. But I see a place for E-books--and it could be a big one.

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