July 6, 1998
Is the world ready for digital books?
By Bob O'Donnell
Now that July 4th has passed and summer is here, it's time to think about some
traditional summer pastimes, notably, reading.
Like many of you, I'm sure, I am a voracious reader. I read books, manuals, newspapers,
magazines, white papers, and just about anything else I can get my hands (or eyes) on.
Increasingly, I'm finding that I'm doing more and more of my reading online, staring at a
computer monitor that was never really designed to be an interface to long pieces of small
text -- reading material that exists only (or primarily) in the digital domain.
Keeping track of all this information and all these books gets a little overwhelming,
however, and I've often wondered when or how technology could aid me in this effort. What
I've been looking for, essentially, is a digital book. Now, there have been some previous
efforts in this regard -- notably Sony's ill-fated Bookman of a few years back -- as well
as reading software designed for some of today's handheld computers. But none of these
products have provided a pleasant reading experience, and all have failed miserably.
Within the last few weeks, however, several companies have announced new products that
are specifically targeted at the digital book "space," as trendy analysts and
venture capitalists like to say. Softbook Press'
SoftBook and NuvoMedia's
RocketBook are both scheduled to arrive sometime this fall or in the last quarter of
1998, and the previously announced Everybook Dedicated
Reader from Everybook Inc. is due in January of 1999.
All three devices will allow you to purchase, download, and store multiple electronic
texts and then view them on their built-in screens. Don't necessarily expect to read
best-sellers on these devices, however -- at least, not initially. All three companies are
targeting professionals that require access to lots of reference materials, including IT
people like you.
Interestingly, all three are single-function devices -- they are electronic books only
and make no attempt to be electronic organizers or handheld computers, at least according
to their initial specs. Both SoftBook and Everybook have built-in modems that will dial
straight into company-run servers that store additional reading materials; the RocketBook
will attach to a PC via a cradle and serial port connection, a la the Palm Pilot. All
three feature some type of encryption and/or authentication to avoid problems with
copyright infringement issues.
To avoid any type of scrolling, all three devices include full-page displays -- the
Everybook, in fact, features two full-page displays -- although they vary in size and
type. The 9 1/2-inch Softbook screen is a fluorescent backlit, passive-matrix display that
supports 16 gray scales; the 5.6-inch RocketBook screen is backlit but monochrome only and
uses diode-matrix technology, apparently a cross between passive and active matrix; and
the two 13-inch full-color Everybook screens are also passive matrix. The screen
resolutions also vary somewhat from what I could gather, although I wasn't able to get
numbers that permitted apples-to-apples comparisons. Of course, the only real test is
viewing these in person -- which I haven't done yet -- but the specs do provide an
The devices also differ in their price and the format of the text that they can read.
The nearly three-pound SoftBook is expected to retail for $300 plus a $10 monthly charge
that includes access to certain free materials, software updates, and other services. The
format it uses is a proprietary one, although based on HTML, which means books or existing
materials other than plain text must be converted by the company's SoftBook Toolkit
software in order to be read on the device. The 1 1/2-pound RocketBook, on the other hand,
is expected to have a retail price "under $500," according to company sources,
and uses standard HTML as its viewing format. The expected retail price for the 3
1/2-pound Everybook is expected to be near $1,500 for the professional version, although
the company is also planning a consumer-oriented model due for release in January of 2000
for around $500. As for file formats, the Everybook uses Adobe's PDF technology, which I
think is a smart move.
Ultimately, I think the digital book concept is an incredibly appealing idea that
eventually will catch on. Whether that time is now and whether these products are the ones
that will break through, however, is much harder to say. I think a lot of important
issues, including durability, battery life, and availability of content will all have to
be addressed, but most important will be the overall reading experience that the screens
on these devices provide. Who knows, maybe by next summer, we'll all be able to start
reading the books we want in digital form.
© Copyright 1998, by InfoWorld Publishing Corp., a
subsidiary of IDG Communications, Inc. Reprinted from InfoWorld,
155 Bovet Road, San Mateo, CA 94402. Further reproduction is prohibited.