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Last Updated: Monday, 27 March 2006, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
The latest chapter of the e-book

By Spencer Kelly,
Presenter, BBC Click

While music, games and videos have all enjoyed the move to electronic hand-held devices, maybe it is a bit surprising to think that our favourite way to enjoy the written word is still on paper.

Someone reading an e-book
Researchers are working on ways to make e-books more readable
Even though the processors in MP3 players, DVD walkmans and games consoles are all powerful enough to handle plain text, the book does seem hard to beat.

After all it has a drop-proof chassis, an operating system that never crashes and very low battery consumption - none.

But that has not stopped people trying to bring books into the digital age.

This is the story of the e-book, a concept that has been around since, well, since it has been fashionable to put the letter "e" in front of other words.

The Sony Bookman, a CD-Rom device with a low-res screen, was launched in 1991 to universal indifference.

Since then the e-book market has been confined to home computers and PDAs.

But I have to say, PDA novels are not particularly easy to use.

What would be great is an iTunes for e-books: a format, a retail outlet and a distribution system that fulfilled all the needs and was simple for consumers to use
Jeremy Ettinghausen, Penguin Books' e-publisher
First you will have to download, install and activate some reader software on your mobile device and there are several different makes to choose from (Adobes and Microsofts among them).

And you also have to make sure that the novel you want is available in a format which matches the reader software.

And even when you get all that working, the experience still does not match reading a good book.

Penguin Books' e-publisher Jeremy Ettinghausen says: "Well, I think one of the major issues is that the book isn't a bad piece of technology. The book is cheap, durable, you can do lots of things with it. You can make notes on it and, unlike perhaps the vinyl record or even the CD, it's not a bad piece of kit."

Prototype reader

Research labs are hurriedly trying to work out what makes a good read, concentrating on things like weight, reflectivity and page turning technique.

The virtual thumb means you won't lose your place
To avoid getting covered in fingerprints, one prototype reader shuns a touch screen in favour of page riffling bars.

It also features a virtual thumb to mark your place while you temporarily peek at another page.

It even has a background that looks like paper.

Tanya Almeida at HP Labs says: "We've done some research with different backgrounds and experimenting with texture on a background but it's a completely plain screen.

"It's partly giving your eyes something to focus on so having a slight texture to the background, having a colouring so there's not too much contrast."

Screen limitations

But the biggest barrier to e-book world domination surely has to be the screen. An LCD display has much lower resolution than paper.

It is also reflective and difficult to read in bright light. And most importantly it needs constant power.

If you are going to read an e-book on a PDA, your reading time is severely limited by the battery life.

But the dedicated e-book reader is about to make a comeback.

Sony's Reader and iRex's iLiad are both to be released soon.

They are both about book size and book weight and they both use a display technology called e-paper.

It is an ink-like display which uses white pigment particles in a black liquid. When a magnetic charge is applied, the white pigment particles either sink to the bottom or rise to the top of the liquid.

That is how you make your black and white image.

E-paper can either be rigid, as it is in these two readers, or flexible, as it is in this prototype. This allows for an even more paper-like feel.

Power solutions

Crucially - and this is really crucial - the display solves the power problems of LCD.

Plastic Logic's Simon Jones says: "You only power the display when you're changing the image and the reason for that is that you move the particles and they basically stay where you put them when you last supplied an electric field.

"That means you can be incredibly power efficient. You monitor a display once, you could leave it for weeks or months and it still stays there."

Which is perfect for displays which you do not need to change that often.

Reading time is now no longer limited by hours but by page turns - about 7,500, according to Sony's predictions.

Audio books

While e-books will certainly get a boost when the e-readers are launched, one type of e-book is already doing quite well.

"I think we are talking about a whole new breed of author: new skills, new content, new ideas, new ways of thinking
Nick Hampshire, digital publishing analyst
Actress Morwenna Banks is recording an audio book, which is due to be released as an MP3 download. No new piece of kit is needed to listen to these - you just put them on your MP3 player.

But whether it is audio books or text-based e-books, the publishing industry is in a situation that is painfully similar to the music business.

Publishers are desperate to make sure we do not share the content around, something that is potentially very easy to do with digital book files, just as it is with mp3s.

Digital rights

One of the reasons PDA e-books are so tricky to use is that the reader software also handles the Digital Rights Management (DRM).

In order to stop you ripping off a book, the copy protection stops you from doing things like printing out a page or even lending it to friends, things that you could quite happily do with a normal book.

The publishing industry is starting out on the same rocky road that the music industry is already some way down.

So, can the publishers learn anything from the musos?

Penguin Books' e-publisher Jeremy Ettinghausen says: "As publishers we need to protect our copyright, we need to make sure that authors get paid for the very hard work they've put into the writing of a book so DRM is an important issue for us, but there needs to be a balance between what we need and what authors need and what makes sense for consumers and I don't think we're quite there yet.

"What would be a great thing for e-book publishing is an iTunes for e-books: a format, a retail outlet and a distribution system that fulfilled all of the needs and was simple for consumers to understand and consumers to use."

Delivery service

And it looks as if one might be on its way.

Sony Connect is a service very similar in concept to iTunes and initially providing around 10,000 titles for the Sony Reader.

The files will be in Sony's own BBeB format, which itself is reminiscent of the Apple proprietary AAC music format.

It looks like Sony are trying to own the book download market, like Apple dominate the music download market.

Nick Hampshire, digital publishing analyst: "I think the interesting thing is that both Sony and Irex see content as being the key to the market. Everybody who has tried the market before has just produced a reader and has forgotten about the content.

"So Sony and iRex are both looking to have as specialised content delivery service which will produce content that is optimised for their reader.

"Now a lot of people would complain about this and say they are trying to hog the market, but both companies do also provide the provision that you can connect your reader to a PC and you can download from the PC content that you have created yourself or content that you have downloaded from other sources on the internet. "

Content will certainly be the main source of income for the e-book market, although currently that income is in the tens of millions of dollars a year worldwide, compared to tens, if not hundreds of billions, of dollars in paper book sales.

New type of author

But the freedoms of the web could provide more would-be authors with a platform to publish their works.

Sites like this allow writers to sell their works as e-books without a standard publishing deal.

Indeed e-books with dynamic content could usher in a new type of book and a new type of author.

Nick Hampshire, digital publishing analyst: "I think we are talking about a whole new breed of author. New skills, new content, new ideas, new ways of thinking particularly, and this will be quite a wrench for some of them to make that move, but it offers new possibilities.

"The possibility of being able to create a book that includes audio components, moving image components that includes interactive components is something which to my mind offers enormous possibilities."

E-books are unlikely to completely topple the dominance of the printed word any time soon but, with enough content and new display technologies like these, they could give paper a run for its money.

Sony Reader targets book lovers
06 Jan 06 |  Technology
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08 Jun 04 |  Entertainment


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