Turning Content Into Gold
Microsoft's release of the Pocket PC with e-book reader software may mark a crucial step in the development of electronic books. Here's why.
By Danny O. Snow
In ancient times, alchemists sought in vain for the mythical "Philosopher's Stone," fabled to transmute base metals into precious ones. The lure of turning lead to gold was irresistible, but the Philosopher's Stone proved elusive, and the alchemists faded away after centuries of fruitless searching.
In recent times, publishers have been equally tantalized by the potentials of e-publishing: a way to make books available worldwide without printing costs, without warehousing and inventory, without shipping, without returns, and without waste.
Of course, the lure of these possibilities is irresistible to publishers, yet to date, the right combination of hardware, software and marketing to make e-publishing viable has proven as elusive as the Philosopher's Stone.
Enter the Pocket PC with Microsoft Reader, now publicly available. Some experts are convinced the equivalent of the Philosopher's Stone is now within the publisher's grasp, while others believe viable e-publishing remains a tantalizing myth. Either way, the release of these new products, and a flurry of important new business alliances related to them, represent an important development in the history of publishing.
This article will explore the strengths and weaknesses of the Pocket PC with Microsoft Reader, as well as offer a few examples of how publishers are responding to its release.
Hardware & Software
The term "Pocket PC" applies to a hand-held computer with myriad uses, including reading e-books, as well as word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, audio files, etc.
Currently there are several devices on the market, including Casio's Cassiopeia; Compaq's iPAQ; Hewlett-Packard's Jornada; and Symbol's PTT 2700. They run under Microsoft's Windows-powered Pocket PC operating system, a mini version of Windows CE. Although it's intended as a multipurpose device, the Pocket PC is of special interest to publishers because of its potential as a tool for reading e-books with better performance than earlier products, as explained below.
The Microsoft Reader software comes pre-installed on a Microsoft Pocket PC. Reader offers special functions, such as highlighting, bookmarks, notes, drawings, search, a built-in dictionary, large print and audio books. The software uses new digital rights management (DRM) technology from McLean, Va.-based ContentGuard, a feature of great interest to publishers because it promises the possibility of secure delivery of e-books (and other content) to consumers via the Web. Microsoft is expected to integrate Reader with other major software products soon, allowing e-books to re-flow across a range of screen shapes and sizes. The Pocket PC's ClearType is special software for LCD screens that provides significantly better text readability than software used on earlier hand-held devices.
Pocket PC's specifications
Size: 3-by-5 inches
Weight: 6 to 9 ounces
Memory: 16 to 32 MB
Processor: 32 bit, 131 to 206 MHz
Screen: 320 x 240, 16-bit active matrix display with 4,096 to 65,000 colors
While the specifications above show that the Pocket PC packs more powerful hardware than dedicated e-book readers, current prices run as high as $500 to $600. Retailers justify the higher cost by citing additional features such as Pocket versions of Word, Excel, Outlook, Internet Explorer and more. However, at this writing, it was unclear if the performance of these features will meet the demands of consumers.
For example, while the Pocket PC boasts a color screen and ClearType software to improve the appearance of text, the display is still only one quarter of the area of the smallest desktop units.
Earlier e-book efforts
This summer's release of the Pocket PC with Microsoft Reader is of special interest to publishers because it tries to address key problems encountered in earlier efforts to bring e-books into mainstream markets. To cite just a few examples
* Some readers found earlier devices less than ideal for pleasure reading, due to their small and colorless LCD screens. The Pocket PC, on the other hand, offers a color screen. While still small, it uses ClearType software to enhance text readability. Early response from users suggests that ClearType provides a meaningful improvement in the appearance of type, in spite of the screen's modest size, especially when sharp black text is displayed on a white background.
* Previously, consumers questioned the value of "dedicated" devices designed solely for reading e-books. The Pocket PC offers word processing, e-mail and other functions, though critics claim some features were stripped down to fit the small, hand-held device. Although this article focuses on its application to e-publishing, it's important to note the Pocket PC is marketed as a multipurpose device, rather than a dedicated book-reading product.
* Many owners found the delivery mechanisms used to load information on previous e-book readers cumbersome. The Pocket PC is designed to streamline the process of moving information between a consumer's desktop computer and his/her hand-held unit, although critics argue this may make the information more vulnerable to piracy.
* For publishers, a major weakness in earlier attempts to bring e-books to a broad market was the failure of copyright protection. Reader software uses ContentGuard, a new system of copyright protection that promises to allow a document's author, publisher, distributor or seller to secure it against piracy, track its movements, and (if applicable) force users to pay before using it.
* The total number of previous e-book reading devices bought by the public was disappointing to publishers. Between the April 19 unveiling of the Pocket PC and June 7, roughly 10,000 units were sold. While this is still an almost insignificant number to publishers, it seems likely that with the market muscle of Microsoft and other industry giants behind it, the Pocket PC may reach a broader segment of the reading public than its predecessors.
Perhaps more importantly, industry experts predict Reader software will be integrated into the Windows operating system and/or Microsoft's other leading software products such as Word and Publisher. This will open the door for wider use of e-books by consumers, whether or not they own a Pocket PC.
In combination, these improvements could signal the arrival of the e-book as a viable medium for publishers -- if the hardware and software deliver the advantages promised by their designers. While it's too early for industry judges to make a final verdict on the overall effectiveness of the Pocket PC and Reader, its release has sparked a sea change in the behavior of the larger publishing houses.
Publishers join in Indeed, for publishers, new corporate alliances involving Microsoft are probably more significant than the products themselves.
In previous years, major publishers seemed reluctant to embrace e-books, in spite of their obvious potential to revolutionize the industry. Their reasons, both public and private, varied from copyright concerns to quality control to the understandable fear of losing market share to independent publishers and self-publishers that could result from widespread delivery of books via the Internet
With Microsoft's entry into the e-book market, it appears the dam has started to crack. New partnerships between Microsoft, Simon & Schuster and Random House were announced with great fanfare, including the electronic release of Michael Crichton's thriller Timeline and other e-books for the Pocket PC with Reader.
A major factor in this watershed was almost certainly the prior announcement that Microsoft and Xerox had jointly created a spin-off company, ContentGuard, to provide copyright protection for e-books and other online content. ContentGuard is designed to be the primary security feature of Microsoft Reader.
Concurrent with the announcement of alliances between Microsoft, Simon & Schuster and Random House, Time Warner announced it will launch a major new e-publishing venture, iPublish.com at Time Warner Books, in the first quarter of 2001. iPublish will include a suite of three "channels" iRead, iWrite and iLearn --providing a broad selection of online content, ranging from e-versions of major bestsellers, to works by aspiring writers, plus resources for writers and publishers.
iPublish's future also could be strengthened by an impending corporate relationship between its parent, communications giant Time Warner, and America Online. In combination, these factors could make iPublish.com the e-publisher to watch in 2001, with its well-conceived structure and the formidable resources of industry leaders behind it.
Is the release of the Pocket PC with Microsoft Reader the equivalent of a Philosopher's Stone for publishers? It's impossible to know until serious questions are answered. Will readers, writers and publishers embrace the presentation of reading material on small screens that change layouts depending on their shapes and sizes? Will consumers buy millions of new hardware devices and/or use new software to read e-books on their existing computers, so publishers can start to sell meaningful numbers of e-books? Will new DRM technologies prevent piracy of e-books?
While the sheer economics of new technologies are virtually certain to drive publishers in the direction of e-publishing, these technologies are still in their infancy. In the long term, it seems likely the Pocket PC with Microsoft Reader will be remembered more for opening the door to serious alliances between publishers and computer makers.
However, the opening of this door is itself a significant development. Unlike earlier efforts of high-tech upstarts to popularize e-books, publishing giants such as Simon & Schuster and Time Warner can attract and meet large-scale consumer demands. They also control large catalogs of good books. As is often the case with new technologies, it appears a once-revolutionary concept now will start to be co-opted by powerful industry players as the technologies mature.
Whether the release of Microsoft Reader represents a leap forward on the map of publishing's electronic future or only a modest stretch of new ground, the summer of 2000 may well be remembered for bringing the end of the road closer to view.