past & future
This page considers information devices such as the Rocket
eBook, Kindle and GlassBook
that display electronic texts downloaded from kiosks,
using WAP or over the plain oldfashioned vanilla web.
It covers -
The preceding page of this guide noted the usefulness
of differentiating between electronic texts (in particular
combinations of text, still/moving graphics and sound
specially formatted for electronic delivery/use) and devices
on which those electronic texts can be read.
In principle an e-text can be accessed via a range of
devices, including a desk-bound or laptop personal computer
(PC), handheld personal digital assistant (PDA), a mobile
phone, a computer game handset or a device that has been
specifically designed for storage and display of e-text
(and that typically has no functionality other than storage,
display and annotation of that text).
The past decade has seen the emergence of a succession
of 'e-book' devices, most of which have failed to gain
strong support from the market and have been abandoned
by manufacturers (and by allies such as publishers and
retailers). Demise has occurred sometimes uncritical,
even distinctly breathless, statements from marketers
and technology writers. Brewster Kahle for example proclaimed
in 2008 that
is no longer the master copy; the digital version is.
Paper has been dealt a complete deathblow. When was
the last time you saw a telephone book?
rejoinder might be "when was the last time you saw
an e-book?", noting that functionalities vary and
that the "complete deathblow" so far has not
killed off all print.
Many of the writers have expressed the technological determinism
criticised in other parts of this site, assuming that
'digital' is necessarily good and that consumers will
embrace what is good irrespective of concerns regarding
functionality and cost.
In practice most e-text appear to be read on personal
computers, often electronically searched (eg for a particular
instruction or phrase) rather than read consecutively.
The keynote speaker at the 2001 US Women’s National
Book Association meeting famously predicted that
market for downloadable books will grow by 400 percent
in each of the next two years, to over $25 billion by
2008. Within a few years after the end of this decade,
e-books will be the preponderant delivery format for
enthusiasm was misplaced and few books or newspapers are
being read on specialist devices as of December 2007.
That has not deterred e-book zealots, such as pundit Jeff
Jarvis, who proclaimed that "Print is where words
go to die" -
problems with books are many: They are frozen in time
without the means of being updated and corrected. They
have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources.
They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a
reader. They try to teach readers but don't teach authors.
They tend to be too damned long because they have to
be long enough to be books. As David Weinberger taught
me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they
have to sit on a shelf under one address; there's only
way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce.
They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster
economics. They can't afford to serve the real mass
of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers' whims. They
aren't searchable. They aren't linkable. They have no
metadata. They carry no conversation. They are thrown
out when there's no space for them anymore.
czar Brad Templeton was more nuanced, commenting that
he reads e-books when delayed at the airport or caught
in a line -
not as pleasant as reading a paper book. But the e-book
you have is better than the book you don't.
to wow ordinary consumers reflects a range of issues,
highlighted below. It also reflects the problematical
nature of specialist devices - despite hype about "a
publishing revolution" are they addressing a market
that largely is not there, ie exists as a small number
of niches rather than encompassing most people who read
books, newspapers and magazines.
Are most e-book devices thus doomed to fail?
Specialist e-book readers have traditionally suffered
from five deficiencies -
used proprietary rather than wide standards, so texts
were not portable from one brand of device to another
(or from personal computer to device and vice versa)
were large, cumbersome and had a poor battery life
offered a poor viewing experience, in particular because
the user interface was clumsy (eg it was difficult to
navigate through a book) and there was insufficient
contrast and brightness on the screen for many consumers
was poor support from retailers, few retailers sold
the particular device and the choice of texts might
be thin (a major problem if the 'book' was in a proprietary
devices could not be used for other purposes, a problem
if the consumer was being invited to invest in a machine
that was expensive.
latest generation of specialist devices has addressed
basic legibility problems, with both the Sony Reader
and the Amazon Kindle gaining praise for higher
resolution than a standard laptop or desk-bound personal
computer (albeit with E Ink screens that rely on ambient
light). Some problems remain.
The Kindle, for example, has been praised as
allowing consumers to quickly download a wide range of
texts from Amazon but criticised on the basis that -
are in a proprietary format that is not portable to
another platform (indeed apparently not portable to
another Kindle), consistent with contractual
requirements that go beyond copyright in prohibiting
the buyer from "lending" or "reselling"
can monitor a user's annotation of a text ("Annotations,
bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings")
are being invited to pay for some online publications
(online newspapers, academic PDFs and other material)
that are available for free on the net
can change the consumer's texts without notification
or authorisation by the consumer
the consumer violates the agreement Amazon can delete
the text/s (even if it has been paid), without appeal
other than to a court (located in a US jurisdiction)
information about 'digital paper' and 'electronic ink'
technologies is provided in a separate note
on this site.
Some sense of the vicissitudes encountered by device promoters
is provided by the following outline -
NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook (nuvomedia.com) gained
the greatest market share - first in the field, paperback-sized,
aggressively marketed (including by the then investment
subsidiary of retail giant Barnes
& Noble and global publisher Bertelsmann).
The bulkier Softbook (softbook.com) was launched
in 1998 but abandoned after the dot-com crash; like
NuvoMedia its producer was taken over in mid-January
2000 by Gemstar, the News Corporation affiliate and
interactive television guide developer (forecast to
be absorbed by Macrovision in 2008).
The Glassbook (glassbook.com) was a competing
product in a similar format. It formerly had strong
links to Microsoft but at the end of August 2000 was
taken over by Adobe; the hardware is now being marketed
The Librius (librius.com) was scheduled for
release in 1999 but abandoned; the company now offers
texts on the smaller Palm and Windows CE personal digital
was a large-format double-screen device with a memory
claimed to hold up to 1,000 titles.
The Franklin eBookman,
a PDA-style device, was released in late 2000 but is
no longer available.
The goReader (goreader.com) - an "electronic
book bag" for the US student market - was described
(somewhat uncritically) in an article
in the May 2001 Future of Print Media journal,
which thereafter expired. goReader also appears to be
defunct. It was similar in appearance to the iLiad.
The device weighed around 3 pounds, with 12 inch colour
screen. Academic texts, in a proprietary format, could
be annotated. Annotations could be shared with other
goReader devices or uploaded to a PC for printing. The
device featured a calculator, calendar, dictionary,
speaker and microphone. Students appear to have preferred
The iLiad was developed by iRex Technologies
(a spinoff from Philips Electronics) and was initially
promoted as a "work in progress", building
on the unsuccessful Philips e-book. The latter was a
paperback size device with two screens. The iLiad
uses E Ink technology (16 shades of gray). It offers
wireless networking and a touch screen for notation
using a stylus. The standard price was US$700. As of
December 2007 iRex is reported to have sold a mere 10,000
The Sony Reader, launched in 2006 as a replacement
for the 2004 Sony Librie (available only in
Japan), uses E Ink in a 9 ounce device of around 5 inches
by 7 inches by 0.5 inches. The display is in grey only.
The standard price is US$350. The device features scope
for listening to MP3 music files through headphones.
Files can be transferred from the consumer's PC to the
Reader via a a memory card, which also allows expansion
of the device's storage capacity. Books can be downloaded
from the Sony Connect site, the manufacturer's counterpart
of Apple's iTunes. Those books are copy-protected, transferrable
to a small number of other machines and copy protected.
Some consumers have criticised poor navigation, lack
of a search facility, inability to display video and
delays in transition from one 'page' to another. Others
have been impressed by the robustness of the E-Ink screen,
low power requirements (one charge is reportedly sufficient
for 7,500 page displays) and features such as recharging
via the device's from power cord or from a personal
computer's USB port.
launched in late 2008, features a 7-inch liquid-crystal
colour screen and 'books' in the form of memory cards
that deliver step-by-step instructional videos on cooking,
home projects, gardening and child care. The video pauses
after each step, with the user being required to hit
a button. The device is around half the price of a Kindle
or Sony Reader. Although hailed by some reviews as "certainly
the most interesting e-book reader to come out since
the Kindle", others have suggested low battery
life means that it is likely to be used as a digital
picture frame or music player rather than a device for
reading text. A more critical concern may be the small
user base, which will deter major publishers from putting
text onto cards. The device is also likely to face competition
from handheld DVD players.
Steve Jobs, responding to a question on whether Apple
would create an e-Reader similar to the Kindle,
reportedly commented -
doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact
is that people don’t read anymore … The
whole conception is flawed at the top because people
don’t read anymore.
bodies and projects
The 'breakthrough' meeting on electronic books was
Book 98, a major conference organised by the US Department
of Commerce and the Video Electronic Standards Association.
We recommend looking at the papers from the conference
and material from the Kent State 'FuturePrint' symposium
Organisation is an industry-dominated body with an
information clearing house and promotional function. Electric
Book is a website with information about electronic
books and online newspapers, journals and monographs.
Kent State University is hosting ongoing "virtual
symposia on the future of print media", with
presentations by hardware/software vendors and publishers.
The Xerox Affordances
of Paper project explores why we continue to use what
one wit described as "dried tree-flakes encased in
dead cow", particularly large documentation systems
such as those found in hospitals and the armed forces.
will sell you everything from petfood and hardware to
antiquarian books but is not actively flogging e-books.
The E Ink
Corporation, as the name suggests, has promoted flexible
high resolution 'electronic ink' screens - discussed in
more detail as part of this site's exploration of electronic
From a less visionary perspective Xplor
International (these days you're apparently not serious
in the digital publishing game unless there's an 'X' in
your moniker) provides a venue for information exchange
under the umbrella of the Electronic Document Systems
Association in competition with the Collaborative Electronic
Notebook Systems Association (CENSA).
The more narrowly-focussed EBX
Working Group is an ad hoc body developing a standard
- closely aligned with Glassbook
- for electronic book exchange.
In North America retailers, hardware and software
developers, and content creators/publishers are aligning
and realigning. In January 2000 Barnesandnoble.com and
Microsoft for example announced a strategic
partnership, with the etailer to establish a "unique
superstore" for selling thousands of eBooks online
and parent Barnes & Noble distributing eBooks and
eBook hardware through its 972 bricks-&-mortar stores
across North America.
By the end of August 2000 that dance was off. Microsoft
went on to become the very best friend of Amazon.com and
Adobe Systems (having absorbed the Glassbook) had a 'preferred
relationship' with Barnes & Noble. In 2003, Barnes
& Noble closed its e-book store in 2003, followed
by Palm's sale of its e-book business to a Web site operator.
A sense of the rocky adoption of e-book technologies is
provided by the following landmarks.
1971 Project Gutenberg started by Michael Hart at University
of Illinois to establish an electronic public library
of 10,000 books.
1973 Ken Jenks starts Mind Eye ePublishing (acquired 1999)
allowed visitors to read a page of a novel before buying
computer games publisher Eastgate Systems releases Michael
Joyce's hypertext novella Afternoon on floppy
1990 John Galuskza creates PC-Book, ebook software featuring
numbered pages and bookmarks
1992 DOS-based ebooks increasingly converted to Windows-compatible
1993 BiblioBytes launches website to sell ebooks over
1994 adoption of HTML rather than ASCI format for many
1994 Roy Hoy launches The Fiction Works publishing company
specifically to produce ebooks
1998 NuvoMedia releases the Rocket, first handheld ebook
reader to allowed ebooks to be downloaded from PC via
1998 SoftBook launches SoftBook reader
1999 Simon & Schuster creates a new imprint, ibooks,
as first trade publisher simultaneously to publish titles
in ebook and print format.
1999 Oxford University Press offers selection of texts
over the net through netLibrary
1999 US National Institute of Standards & Technology
holds its first ebook conference
1999 Microsoft's Dick Brass declares that ebooks are the
future of reading and predicts that by 2018 90% of all
books sold would be ebooks
2000 launch of Glassbook ebook reader for PC
2000 Stephen King's novel Bag of Bones published
exclusively on the net for use with Glassbook ebook reader,
selling 500,000 copies in 48 hours
2000 Microsoft launches Microsoft Reader, its first ebook
2000 alliance between Microsoft and Amazon
2000 Frankfurt Book Fair hosts inaugural ebook awards
2000 Gemstar launches handheld ebook readers, RCA and
2001 Adobe launches ebook reader software, updated version
of the Glassbook reader, allowing users to underline,
take notes and bookmark.
2001 Random House launches ebook imprint
2001 HarperCollins launches PerfectBound, international
2001 Time Warner Books launches ipublish, its ebook imprint
2001 Penguin launches ebook imprint, ePenguin, with 200
2001 WHSmith launches ebook section
2001 Time Warner closes ipublish - "The market for
ebooks has simply not developed the way we hoped"
2003 Barnes & Noble closes its e-book store
2003 Palm sells its e-book operation
2006 Belgian financial newspaper De Tijd tests
electronic journal on iLiad E-reader
2006 French financial paper Les Echos tests newspaper
2006 newspaper trade group IFRA tests in Germany
2007 Kindle launched by Amazon.com
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