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section heading icon     e-book devices

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

Paper 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?

One 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

The 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 book content.

Such 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" -

The 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.

EFF czar Brad Templeton was more nuanced, commenting that he reads e-books when delayed at the airport or caught in a line -

It's not as pleasant as reading a paper book. But the e-book you have is better than the book you don't.

Failure 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 -

  • they 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)
  • they were large, cumbersome and had a poor battery life
  • they 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
  • there 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 format)
  • the devices could not be used for other purposes, a problem if the consumer was being invited to invest in a machine that was expensive.

The 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 -

  • texts 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" the text
  • Amazon can monitor a user's annotation of a text ("Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings")
  • users are being invited to pay for some online publications (online newspapers, academic PDFs and other material) that are available for free on the net
  • Amazon can change the consumer's texts without notification or authorisation by the consumer
  • if 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)

More information about 'digital paper' and 'electronic ink' technologies is provided in a separate note on this site.

     the devices

Some sense of the vicissitudes encountered by device promoters is provided by the following outline -

  • Rocket eBook
    NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook ( 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 ). 
  • Softbook
    The bulkier Softbook ( 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).
  • Glassbook
    The Glassbook ( 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 by RCA.
  • Librius
    The Librius ( was scheduled for release in 1999 but abandoned; the company now offers texts on the smaller Palm and Windows CE personal digital assistant.
  • Everybook
    The EveryBook was a large-format double-screen device with a memory claimed to hold up to 1,000 titles.
  • eBookman
    The Franklin eBookman, a PDA-style device, was released in late 2000 but is no longer available.
  • goReader
    The goReader ( - 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 laptops. 
  • iLiad
    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 iLiads worldwide.
  • Sony Reader
    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.
  • MiBook
    The MiBook, 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.

Apple's Steve Jobs, responding to a question on whether Apple would create an e-Reader similar to the Kindle, reportedly commented -

It 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 Electronic 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 mentioned below.

The E-Books 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. Interestingly, 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 paper.

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 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 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 it

1987 computer games publisher Eastgate Systems releases Michael Joyce's hypertext novella Afternoon on floppy disk.

1990 John Galuskza creates PC-Book, ebook software featuring numbered pages and bookmarks

1992 DOS-based ebooks increasingly converted to Windows-compatible formats

1993 BiblioBytes launches website to sell ebooks over the net

1994 adoption of HTML rather than ASCI format for many ebooks

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 serial cable

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 reader software

2000 alliance between Microsoft and Amazon

2000 Frankfurt Book Fair hosts inaugural ebook awards

2000 Gemstar launches handheld ebook readers, RCA and RED 1100

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 ebook imprint

2001 Time Warner Books launches ipublish, its ebook imprint

2001 Penguin launches ebook imprint, ePenguin, with 200 titles

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 reader

2006 newspaper trade group IFRA tests in Germany

2007 Kindle launched by

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version of December 2008
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