EBooks 2004: an update

By Jon: First published in Online Currents 2004 – 19(7) 29-30

In last year’s articles on eBooks I suggested that the industry was settling down. I was wrong. Although eBook sales are increasing rapidly, the industry is no closer to a standard format or distribution system.


Dedicated eBook readers

I predicted last year that dedicated eBook reading devices would go the way of the dedicated word processing system, and be replaced by Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), otherwise known as hand-held computers. I was partly vindicated by the collapse of Gemstar, distributors of the Rocket eBook reader (see below); but I had reckoned without the research into cheap, low-power screens being done in many Asian countries. This has been partly motivated by the difficulties involved in displaying languages like Japanese and Chinese on standard PDAs and other computer equipment. The solution is to have a pictorial display rather than one based around a relatively small number of characters like most Western scripts.

The explosive growth of laptop sales (and to a lesser extent PDAs) has spun off more research into cheaper and better ways of making these small thin screen displays. The most advanced of these use a cholesterol-based system (yes, that cholesterol) which can hold a static display indefinitely while drawing no battery power. Ebook displays provide an effective, relatively low-tech way of demonstrating these, and many Asian companies are now working on eBook reader prototypes; see for instance the Sharp Sigma (http://thebrainspur.blogs.com/photos/international/ebook.html) and the Toshiba prototype at http://www.infosyncworld.com/news/n/4725.html. How many of these will make it into full production remains to be seen, and none are as yet tagged for sale in Australia as far as I know, but any manufacturer that can secure the Chinese education market, for instance, has about 160 million customers ready and waiting.

I still feel that eBook readers and PDAs will eventually converge, but it may take a few development generations for these new devices to acquire the computing capabilities of, say, a Palm Pilot.


PDAs continue to get faster, better and cheaper. Colour screens are commonplace, wireless networking is readily available and many PDAs come with built-in cameras. Roughly half of the PDAs sold in Australia use the Pocket PC operating system developed by Microsoft, while the rest come from Palm Inc’s new spinoff company, PalmSource. The Palm PDB and Mobipocket PRC eBook formats remain the closest thing to an eBook standard in the PDA universe, although work is being done on finding a way to display PDF files on a small screen. The small SD (Secure Digital) card has become the most popular plug-in storage device, and the capacity-to-price ratio of these and other memory cards has increased at least four-fold since last year.

Tablet PCs and laptops

Tablet PCs have not fulfilled their early promise, but laptop sales have overtaken desktop PC sales for the first time. Smaller, lighter laptops (‘palmtops’) are coming down in price, and slow but steady improvements in battery technology are making them run more cheaply for longer. Some manufacturers have begun to discuss using hydrogen fuel cells in portable computers (see http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,60305,00.html for details)

Multimedia and game players

An unexpected entrant in the eBook reader stakes is the BenQ Joybee 150 MP3 player (http://www.benq.com.au/HomeShowProduct.asp?prodID=179). This is designed to store and play back MP3 music files from a tiny hard disk, but it comes with a four-line monochrome screen which can be used to display the details of the song being played or the song’s lyrics. The company claims that this provides it with an ‘eBook function’, but gives no indication of how that might be implemented. Other writers have discussed the possibility of using the similar Apple iPod as an eBook reader, as well as gaming consoles like the Sony PlayStation. But do game players and music enthusiasts read?

File formats and display software

The OEB format promoted by Microsoft and other major software companies continues to flounder and as yet not one commercial eBook distributor offers it as an option. Microsoft’s own .LIT format for the Microsoft Reader can now be read on PCs, laptops, and newer Pocket PC PDAs, while the two main formats for other PDAs (apart from plain text) remain the Mobipocket .PRC format and the Palm .PDB format.Version 6 of the Adobe Acrobat Reader has finally introduced ‘reflowable’ text, pointing the way to a system that will work effectively on screens of any size.

Producing eBooks

In the past I have produced several eBooks with the free personal edition of the MobiPocket Publisher (http://www.mobipocket.com) and found it heavy going. A new Russian program, Book Designer, provides a better alternative, and can turn out eBooks in Palm, MobiPocket, Microsoft Reader and even Franklin eBookMan Reader formats. A freeware version is available from http://www.the-ebook.org/Programm/bookdesigner_v4. The interface is a little busy, but worth persevering with for those who want to produce eBooks of their own.

Also new on the market are several PDF-making programs providing an alternative to the overpriced ($500+) Adobe Acrobat. One of these, pdfFactory, was mentioned in Online Currents for March 2004; this and various others are available in demo versions for download (see http://www.PDFfactory.com). A freeware version of pdfFactory puts its own brand on each page; the non-branding licensed version is available online for $US49.95. Other similar programs are available in boxed versions from software distributors like Harvey Norman and Dick Smith.

Distribution systems

In my previous article I noted that Gemstar, the producer and distributor of proprietary books for reading on their proprietary Rocket device, appeared to be in financial trouble. They have since closed down this division (seehttp://$2205) leaving thousands of users holding expensive devices for which there may no longer be any new content. Luckily there are ways to convert Rocket eBooks across to more generic formats, but fiascos like this strengthen the case for open systems and formats which are not dependent on specific hardware or software.

More recently the popular eBook distributor Content Reserve (http://www.contentreserve.com) has sharply raised the fees they charge for listing books, and many smaller publishers are looking for a new distribution partner. One of the ‘services’ for which Content Reserve charges is applying and enforcing Digital Rights Management (DRM). This continues to be unpopular with readers and there are signs that eBook publishers are starting to think the same way. FictionWise (http://www.fictionwise.com) and Baen Books (http://www.baen.com), both of which avoid DRM as much as possible, continue to flourish, expand and (presumably) make a profit.

In the public domain, a Million eBook Project has begun (http://www.library.cmu.edu/Libraries/MBP_FAQ.html). The goal of this is to ship container-loads of books from Carnegie-Mellon University to India and China, where they will be cheaply scanned, proofread and made available over the Web. (What happens if the boat sinks?) A preliminary sample of books can be found athttp://www.dli.gov.in/ULIB/web/browse.pl?prefix=AB&field=LASTNAME; but a lot more work needs to be done on proofreading and cataloguing if this site is any indication.

On a less ambitious scale, the Distributed Proofreading Project (http://www.pgdp.net) continues to make it possible for anyone around the world to log in and assist with proofing scanned texts to appear in Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.net) and BlackMask online (http://www.blackmask.com). A superfast book scanner allows the administrators of the Project to scan 600-1200 pages an hour for proofreading. Similar scanners are also starting to appear in large university libraries like Stanford (see http://www.honco.net/os/print_keller.html). And Amazon has used a scanner of this type to create page images of new books it is offering for sale, allowing full-text searching; although some publishers, fearful of illegal copying, have withheld their books from this facility (http://www.wired.com/news/ebiz/0,1272,60948,00.html).

Meanwhile Project Gutenberg has lent its name to a paid offshoot, currently known as Gutenberg 2 (http://projectgutenberg.info), which will offer users access to works from Gutenberg 1 and elsewhere for a small annual subscription fee. Debates are raging about whether this violates the free-for-all ethos under which Project Gutenberg was started all those years ago. And Project Gutenberg Australia (http://gutenberg.net.au) could now be under threat from the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement, which may put us under the same repressive life-plus-seventy-years copyright regime now in force in the USA. Ironic that an agreement allegedly concerned with freeing up regulations should actually impose more of them!

Commentators and resources

The best source for news on all things eBook related remains the Yahoo ebook-community mailing list (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ebook-community). The best source for free fiction eBooks remains Blackmask (http://www.blackmask.com) which draws on Project Gutenberg and other sources. David Rothman’s Teleread blog (http://www.teleread.org/blog) is a fluent and well-informed take on the eBook universe by a dedicated partisan of the public domain.