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Electronic books to get a boost

October 14, 1998
Web posted at 5:45 PM EDT

by Bob O'Donnell


(IDG) -- As we move toward a more information-based way of life, lots of effort is going into delivering information as efficiently as possible. Personal computers are, of course, one obvious result. But there has been a movement toward dedicated information display (as opposed to creation) products as well.

In the consumer market, set-top Internet terminals such as Microsoft's WebTV are one such example. Now digital (or electronic) books are poised to make their mark on both the consumer and enterprise markets as well. As I discussed in a previous column (see "Is the world ready for digital books?"), the concept of an electronic book is appealing, but several important technological challenges need to be overcome if electronic books are to make a significant mark on the information access market.

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Last week, at the first-ever Electronic Book 98 conference, one important hurdle was overcome with the announcement of a new electronic book content standard that is being endorsed by Microsoft. The new file format, called the Open eBook content structure standard, is based primarily on the technology developed by SoftBook Press -- makers of the SoftBook. That company's technology, in turn, is based on HTML 3.2 with certain previously proprietary extensions specifically designed for electronic books. In addition, the company has been working toward migrating the format to Extensible Markup Language (XML), and that development will continue under the rubric of the Open eBook standard.

According to SoftBook representatives, the standard will be published by Microsoft free of charge and is expected to be available by the end of this year. The new technology standard is not tied to Windows CE, they pointed out, nor to any of Microsoft's other operating systems. However, with the publication of an open standard, I'm sure we can look forward to eBook reader applications for all those platforms, as well as lots of others, such as the PalmPilot.

On one hand, the timing of the standard announcement is apropos: None of the previously announced electronic book products have begun to ship yet, although SoftBook said it would make its first few units available at the Agenda conference later this month. But it's a bit awkward, too, in that the first version of the SoftBook -- NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook -- and Everybook products are nearing completion and probably won't have full support for the new standard when they first ship.

SoftBook representatives were quick to point out that the standard will be backward compatible both with SoftBook's own standard as well as the generic HTML format that is being used in Rocket eBook so that no one will be penalized for buying early. Because the Everybook electronic book is based on the more graphically rich PDF format, however, this new standard might cause a problem for Everybook.

Having an accepted standard should be a good incentive for publishers, however, who were undoubtedly uneasy with the thought of having to convert their content into several possible standards. In fact, this is the most important aspect of the announcement, because it will undoubtedly lead to faster adoption of the eBook format. (To be honest, though, I still think the readability of the devices will be an even more important factor in their success or failure than the number of titles that are available.)

In addition, to make electronic books a success in the enterprise market -- which most of the companies are specifically targeting -- easy, affordable content publishing (or conversion) tools must support the Open eBook standard. SoftBook has announced tools of this sort, which is a step in the right direction, but I think a few of them need to be available before eBooks have a chance of making a big impact in business.

Bob O'Donnell has been writing about, talking about, analyzing, testing, and using computers and other high-technology equipment for more than 13 years. He also hosts "O'Donnell on Computers," a weekly computer talk show heard every Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on San Francisco Bay area radio station KSFO (560 AM) and on the Web via RealAudio. In addition, he is the computer expert on the "Meeting the Challenge" television program.

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