Palm reading

Though e-book sales have been sluggish, Microsoft says in 10 years they'll challenge the paper kind.

Published February 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In three years' time, electronic-book devices will weigh less than a pound, run eight hours and cost as little as $99. By 2009, expect e-books to outsell the traditional paper variety in many categories, and in 2020, Webster's dictionary will alter the definition of "book" to include titles read onscreen.

All of these predictions arrive courtesy of Microsoft, in a timeline-style ad for Reader, its new e-book software due out this spring. The scenes in this crystal ball (which appears in Brill's Content and Publisher's Weekly, as well as on the Microsoft site) look awfully similar to the vision electronic book makers like NuvoMedia and SoftBook Press projected when they unveiled their e-books a couple of years ago. But the two leading digital bookmakers languished with slow sales on pricey digital readers; both were acquired by Gemstar International, owner of TV Guide, in January -- and NuvoMedia's RocketBook has since dropped its price from around $300 to $199.

Microsoft, of course, isn't going to make the actual reading "appliance." It has no plans to invest in the "tablet PCs" that its timeline predicts will appear in 2004, nor does the company's past record of bullying its competition point to the union of "high-tech rivals" that the ad states will "fund the conversion of the entire Library of Congress to eBooks" in 2015. So just how does Redmond expect to lure the world's largest newspapers to give up newsprint by 2018?

Well, it all comes down to the software, of course -- something called ClearType. The new digital type triples the resolution of letters on LCD screens by adjoining gray pixels to the edge of black letters, creating the perception of a softer black-to-white contrast that closely mirrors actual print. Reader will be downloadable to PCs running Windows and handhelds running Windows CE; it will also be bundled with "pocket PCs," the next-generation handheld devices running yet another version of Windows that Bill Gates introduced at January's Consumer Electronics Show.

Bill Hill, a researcher working on Reader, expects that a Windows-compatible system will make e-reading take off. "It's a logjam," Hill says of the current digital-reader market with its variety of digital-reader technologies. "The way to break it is to offer ClearType text to the Windows base of 150 million users. Then things will begin to flow. Publishers will begin to offer all their titles; then the book devices will begin to catch on."

In typical Microsoft style, Hill figures that if Redmond puts its weight behind the idea, it can move mountains. "It's one thing for a small device-manufacturer to go to a publisher and ask them to put titles in electronic form. It's quite another for Microsoft to do it," he says.

Still, even with a Reader dictionary, highlighting and other options, the software may not be unique when it arrives. By year's end, Adobe's Acrobat Reader -- whose portable document format (PDF) is widely used for lengthy digital documents -- will add CoolType, using a similar graying technology to offer an improved display. Adobe has a deal with Palm and Everybook to offer PDF files on the handheld devices.

And unlike Reader, the retooled Acrobat will be available on Windows and other platforms. And Adobe has a head start: 110 million copies of Acrobat are already in use. I wonder if Microsoft was factoring that in when counting up the 250 million e-readers it expects in 2005.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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