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Saturday, 3 June, 2000, 04:45 GMT 05:45 UK
E-book revolution on the way
Book shelves in library
Shelves of books could become a thing of the past
By the BBC's arts correspondent David Sillito

The web began as a means of transmitting large amounts of information around the World.

E-publishing has become the norm for many academic writers wanting to exchange data and ideas.

But it has not attracted publishers who make money from their texts.

There are two problems preventing the world's literature going online.

The first is that people dislike reading large amounts of text sitting in front of a computer screen.

The second is that publishers dislike handing out their texts for free. But both problems may be about to be solved.

Pocket PCs

Pocket PCs are already available on the British marketplace and portability is the new paradigm.

As any red-eyed VDU operator can tell you, spending hours reading from a screen is rather less pleasant than leafing through a paperback.

One of the problems is the typeface itself.

Microsoft though believes its "Cleartype" technology, which smoothes out the pixels, will mean that we can all spend hours looking at a screen without any ill effects.

Reading in the bath

But beyond something rather better to look at there are other improvements that will make the e-book possible.

Batteries have got smaller and more powerful making the new devices lighter and lighter.

Improvements in memory mean that the first e-books on the market will have the capacity for around a hundred novels.

Shelf of books
Many texts may be published on the internet
But with data storage doubling every twelve months, Microsoft is anticipating that hand held devices will eventually be able to hold anything up to a million different texts.

Once they have made them waterproof and virtually unbreakable, you will have the ultimate product for reading Danielle Steele in the bath.

There are, for the most part, two types of book available to download on the internet.

There are out of copyright classics like Wuthering Heights or Moby Dick and there are those who even the author's friends and family would not pay to read.

But there are exceptions.

E-education

All of Dorling Kindersley's highly illustrated educational books are available on the web for free.

Their experience suggests that the more the website is visited the more books they sell in the shops.

But, despite Dorling Kindersley's enthusiasm, very few publishers agree.

"Riding the Bullet" is a Stephen King novel written entirely for the internet.

It could be downloaded for two dollars fifty and thousands of users visited the site and paid the full fee.

However, within a matter of hours of going online the book was offered around the web for free.

It was a defining moment for e-publishing sceptics.

But the web was devised to make it easy to send information over long distances for free, so small wonder it does not appeal to those who make their money from holding the copywright on texts.

Access for all

Work on "digital rights management" is thought to be moving on at speed and those hyping e-reading suggest that an industry standard will emerge within the next 12 months.

If it proves to be resilient to hackers then there is nothing to stop tens of thousands of novels appearing on the web within months.

The possibilities then are startling.

Partially sighted people will suddenly have access to virtually every book they could want with a typeface to suit them.

Text to voice converters will read books out loud.

Books can be endlessly updated, never again need a book find itself outpaced by events.

Dull illustrations and charts can be as exciting and vivid as the latest playstation technology.

At this year's BookExpo America there were 60 digital providers, three times the number of last year.

In readiness for the forthcoming flood of change Rocket eBook and SoftBook are about to launch their hardware on the British market.

Few though are predicting the death of the paperback. It is simply a new product that is being created not a replacement for what is a masterpiece of modern life.

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