E Books' Brass Band

As Microsoft's Dick Brass sees it, print on paper will go the way of the quill pen

Vice-President Al Gore traveled to Tacoma, Wash., a few years ago to solicit advice on issuing tax credits for software exports. It's a fairly esoteric topic, but one that sparks passion among the digerati. No one at that exclusive gathering was more passionate than Dick Brass. A senior vice-president at Oracle Corp. at the time, Brass's voice boomed and his arms flailed as he lectured the Veep on the importance of aiding America's software industry. On the way out of the meeting, Brass asked his longtime friend, Microsoft Corp. research chief Nathan P. Myhrvold, whether he was a bit too pushy. Myhrvold recalls telling him: "If you had been any more pushy, either I or the Secret Service would have jumped on the Vice-President" to shield him.

Never dull. Dick Brass is nothing if not, well, brassy. The 48-year-old native New Yorker is a force of nature. With his walrus mustache, frizzy mop of hair, and eyeglasses, he looks more like a college professor than a hard-charging software exec. But he can grab the attention of an entire room just by walking in the door. He often bellows to make a point or interrupts people to redirect the course of a conversation. And then he mocks himself, grinning from ear to ear, to avoid being completely overbearing. Brass is exasperating to some, charming to others--but never dull.

Fortunately, he has a job that demands all the bluster he can muster. For 2 1/2 years, Brass has been in charge of Microsoft's efforts to light a fire under the electronic-book business. In that short time, Brass has emerged as the world's leading evangelist for e-books. He prods and cajoles publishers, authors, and computer makers to persuade them that these electronic tablets will someday soon become a world-changing business. "He's like a gale-force wind in the face of a publishing industry that is very reluctant to change," says Steve Riggio, vice-chairman of barnesandnoble.com Inc.

In April, Microsoft will give the industry a kick-start. Hardware giants Casio, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard plan on rolling out palm-size devices loaded with Microsoft Reader, the e-book software Brass has shepherded since he joined Microsoft. As vice-president for technology development, he leads 100 engineers and scientists whose task is to make reading books on electronic screens as pleasant as print on paper. Their breakthrough, called ClearType, smoothes the jagged edges of electronic type, making letters on computer screens easier to read. It's a huge step forward for e-books and a triumph for Brass, who is not shy about tooting his own horn. "Publishing is about to change in Gutenbergian proportions," boasts Brass.

In the world according to Brass, e-books will do nothing less than upend the publishing industry and put a big dent in the wood-pulp business. Digital books will allow publishers to sell directly to readers--and ship their products via the Internet. That happened on Mar. 14, when Simon & Schuster released Stephen King's "Riding the Bullet" over the Web to phenomenal response. Authors could even bypass publishers, selling books directly to readers and taking in every last penny of the sale. "New voices are going to emerge. No books will go out of print. This will be the golden age of literature," Brass says.

To date, though, e-books barely register as a business. International Data Corp. estimates that only 5,000 e-book devices were sold last year. That number could climb to 2.8 million in 2004, IDC says, but only if publishers agree to invest tens of millions of dollars in promoting the business and if e-book devices become lighter, easier to read, and cheaper. E-books have to give consumers a reason to give up something they're comfortable with. "Paper does a pretty good job of being paper," says IDC analyst Kevin Hause.

So Brass has set out to make electronic screens better than paper. He was one of the forces behind creating an industry standard for e-books, which is essential if this market is ever to take off. Publishers have no desire to release electronic books in even a handful of different competing formats. So Brass pushed execs from the other e-book companies, publishers, and booksellers to draw up some common rules. The group agreed to a preliminary set of standards last September. Now, publishers can easily create digital manuscripts that can be read on virtually any device.

And Brass isn't done. He's delivering a new version of Microsoft Reader this summer with more advanced copy protection, making it more difficult for people to swap e-books--a huge issue for publishers. That could open the floodgates for new titles. Brass predicts that 10,000 will be available in the Reader format by Christmas, up from a few thousand today.

Post time. Making e-books a force to be reckoned with is not a new challenge for Brass. He has been working at it for the past 20 years. But you wouldn't have pegged him as the second coming of Johannes Gutenberg when he was kid. Brass grew up in the New York suburbs, the son of a clothing salesman. He attended Hebron Academy, a Maine boarding school, then went off to Cornell University where he decided he wanted to be a journalist. He ultimately dropped out--he didn't complete his physical education requirement--to work for the New York Post.

It was one of Brass's shortcomings as a journalist that got him interested in e-books: He was a wretched speller. After toiling at the New York tabloids for five years, he had an epiphany while looking at his dogeared dictionary. "It dawned on me that all these books we used with computers could be in computers," says Brass. He left newspapering in 1980 and licensed the digital rights to the Random House Dictionary. That year, he founded Dictronics Publishing Inc. and went on to develop an electronic thesaurus. E-books has been a mission ever since.

Brass even came out of retirement to pursue his e-book dream. He became a multimillionaire working for a decade at Oracle, first as head of its data-publishing business and later as public relations chief for CEO Lawrence J. Ellison. He stepped down in 1997, planning to relax with his wife, Dr. Regina Dwyer, an internist, and enjoy two of his passions--boating and dining out. Then Myhrvold called, offering him the chance to lead Microsoft's e-book efforts. Brass didn't hesitate. "It's the perfect job. It's better than retirement," he says.

Brass is hardly the first to pick up the e-book torch. Swapping pages for an electronic screen has been a dream ever since 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's science adviser Vannevar Bush wrote about a machine he called the Memex that could store books and other text and link them together by word associations. Since then, a succession of companies have taken up the cause, including Xerox and Sony.

But e-books have been overhyped and have underperformed. Fifty-five years after Bush's dreams of the Memex, consumers can cozy up with only two e-books: NuvoMedia Inc.'s Rocket eBook and SoftBook Press Inc.'s SoftBook Reader. The tiny industry may be firming up, though. In January, Gemstar International Group Ltd. agreed to buy both NuvoMedia and SoftBook. Gemstar plans on aggressively marketing e-books--something neither NuvoMedia nor Softbook had the financial wherewithal to do.

Still, if e-books are finally going to get off the ground, there's a lot of spadework to do. The electronics industry has to pursuade publishers to make e-books broadly available and easy to buy. And it needs to convince consumers that e-books aren't just a geeky alternative to p-books.

There may be no one better to instigate that change than Brass. At the very least, he can get people's attention. Two years ago, he lassoed Donald R. Katz, chairman of Audible Inc., the Wayne, N.J., company that sells audio versions of books over the Web. Brass spearheaded Microsoft's $5 million investment in Audible and was closing the deal over dinner at Rover's, one of Seattle's most elegant restaurants. Katz wanted Microsoft to build connections from its word-processing software to Audible. Brass exploded, bellowing how he had already agreed to put links to Audible in Windows, on mobile devices, and on Microsoft's Web site. Katz recalls Brass saying, "Where the hell else do you want me to put Audible? In my anus?" Katz laughed and closed the deal, never getting all he wanted. And now he counts Brass, who sits on Audible's board, among his friends.

Brass makes no apologies for his outbursts. "I have a naturally theatrical personality," he says. "It's not totally accidental. In order to convince people this is worth pursuing, it's important to show enthusiasm." Some might not be able to handle his personality. And that may get in the way of building the sort of partnerships necessary to push e-books forward. But according to fan Myhrvold, "You need someone to get it to go from nothing to something."

Forget about protecting Al Gore. If Brass has his way, Johannes Gutenberg is the one in trouble.

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