E-book makers sold to a TV-centric company

What will Gemstar International, a maker of VCR programming technology, do with SoftBook and NuvoMedia?

Published January 19, 2000 9:30AM (EST)

In a strange twist for the emerging electronic book field, the two leading e-book makers, NuvoMedia and SoftBook Press, have been acquired by Gemstar International, which only a few months ago acquired TV Guide. The all-stock deal was completed last week and announced on Tuesday.

The acquisitions are a little puzzling. Gemstar is certainly an up-and-comer in the TV world. It's the maker of VCR Plus, or Video Plus, technology, which lets you record a TV show by entering a code rather than navigating through your VCR menu. The new TV Guide owner is also a major provider of interactive TV guides that let you browse cable programming. America Online has licensed Gemstar technology for its upcoming TV service.

OK, but what's a TV-centric company going to do with digital books? The official line is that the acquisition is a straightforward attempt to corral a new market before it really takes off.

Although there's been a lot of enthusiasm for digital books since the idea was introduced two years ago, the book-shaped, portable appliances that can store hundreds of pages of text haven't exactly been selling like hot cakes. Maybe it's the price: You can download Time magazine or a Stephen King novel for a little less than you'd pay at the bookstore -- but first you have to shell out about $300 to buy a SoftBook or NuvoMedia's RocketBook digital reader. Besides, even among the digitally savvy -- who are already toting a laptop, cell phone and PDA -- there are few who really want to trade a disposable magazine for another machine. While neither e-book maker has released sales figures, it's safe to say digital books have yet to make the bestseller list.

Gemstar may be the perfect company to jump-start things. Its VCR Plus technology is ubiquitous today, but it took years to develop the market. At first, local TV guides weren't interested in listing the codes, because few VCRs were programmed to understand them, and the VCR companies wouldn't include the technology because there weren't any TV listings. Gemstar had to market special remote controls directly to consumers until it was able to get enough VCR manufacturers on board.

How it brings that marketing expertise to bear on the electronic book field remains to be seen. But Gemstar says it will launch a massive ad campaign later this year in an attempt to persuade readers that they simply must have a digital book. Could Gemstar try to tie electronic books to its VCR technology? Perhaps distribute e-books through the TV or make the text free to TV Guide subscribers? At this point, there's no telling, but one thing you shouldn't expect is the e-books to become portable video players. SoftBook and NuvoMedia devices have monochrome screens -- the closest they get to video is grayscale graphics.

By Lydia Lee

Lydia Lee is a San Francisco writer


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