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Wednesday, 19 December 2007 04:25

Finally - the year of the e-book?

It's a tenuous peg for a prediction, we know, but ShiftAge is prepared to regard the fact that Sydney's Dymocks bookstore has sold out its first order of
the iLiad e-book reader as the first rumble in a tectonic (should that be techtonic?) shift in the marketplace - one that will make 2007, in retrospect,
the year of the electronic book. 
The simple numbers are scarcely impressive. The total stock was a mere 50, but these devices cost $899 each, and Dymocks says it has orders for most of the second 50, due to arrive shortly.

The fact that Dymocks has moved stock at that price, and has made a substantial commitment to electronic books and will be displaying and pushing them in its Sydney store is enough to convince me that as the price comes down, they will take a substantial share of the market. Stan Beer disagrees, but I've experienced the sheer convenience of downloading current titles for less than you'd pay if you had the time to browse a bookshop. And while I'm yet to trial the iLiad, I'd be prepared to bet that it's a pleasure to read with.

It wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong about e-books. It's seven years since I coughed up $500 for my first e-book reader - the Rocket eBook - and immediately predicted that it was about to become a compelling force. I was wrong in 2000, and I've been wrong every year since then. Over those years, the Rocket eBook has continued to be a working joy that enriches the experience of reading. Too bad you can't buy any new titles for it.

In our defence, the reason for the continued triumph of Gutenberg's ancient technology has much more to do with mismanagement and sheer hubris than with the concept of books on the screen. In the hubris department, the name Henry C. Yuen will live in infamy. Henry was chief executive of a compan called Gemstar when he formulated the idea that he could corner the market in electronic reading. The business plan unfolded like this: first he took over the company that made the Rocket eBook, NuvoMedia, and its chief competitor, SoftBook. Then, instead of improving, or at least maintaining their already proven utility, he stripped out all the bits that had made it attractive to the first generation of eBook enthusiasts. The Rocket eBook's replacement,
the REB 1100, featured less memory, a lower-contrast LCD screen and a higher price tag than its predecessor. it also lost a considerable degree of utility.

Henry completely ditched RocketWriter - a piece of software that allowed users to convert Web pages and personal documents for their expensive devices. He deleted the free library of e-books that might have attracted potential buyers, and tried to funnel all sales through Gemstar's website. He ensured the site would lose its attraction to the community of users that had largely driven the demand for e-books by stripping it of unbiased comment and turning it into a bland puff gallery for Gemstar. 

Henry's genius killed the e-book market, practically overnight. As users stopped buying the REB 1100, the decline in demand influenced publishers to stop
formatting their content for the device. Like so many disillusioned owners, I now had a $500 white elephant. One after another, the big publishers who'd
initially expressed enthusiasm for the idea closed their e-book subsidiaries, like AtRandom (Random House) and iPublish (AOL Time Warner). To some
extent, they'd contributed to the debacle. The range of new titles was limited and not - as they should have been - much cheaper than conventional books. Then Thomson Consumer Electronics stopped manufacturing the REB 1100.

It's slim compensation for the true believers of the e-book world that Henry subsequently served time and was forced to pay $22 million in restitution, penalties and interest, plus $93.6 million to the company over a scheme to inflate the company's revenues.

There have been several attempts since then to resuscitate the industry, all doomed to failure because the platforms were deficient.

The Korean-developed HiEbook was one contender, but it was too expensive, and its reverse backlit display meant it was less comfortable for the bedtime reader than the Rocket eBook. The French-developed Cybook looked promising, but its landed price in Australia of $1500 assured it was never going to stir much interest.

The e-book lived on only on devices like the Palm (itself looking more and more, every day, a candidate for the elephant's graveyard). I know a lot of
readers will testify that they LOVE reading e-books on their Treos and Windows Mobile screens. They claim they don't mind a bit reading on their laptops
and their UMPCs, but the experience all-purpose devices - particularly small ones - bring to reading simply doesn't exploit the potential.

I got a little more excited about Sony's initiative - the Sony Reader. It uses a six-inch E Ink display that finally improves on the Rocket eBook. Its major drawback is that you can only order books through the Sony site, and there's no indication in any case, when or whether Sony will bring the reader into Australia.

There's a similar problem with Amazon's new Kindle. You can't set up an account without a US address, and the fact that its EVDO card won't work in Australia severely reduces its functionality. Besides, it looks ugly.

I had my hopes raised a few months ago, when an Adelaide company called Ubiq Technologies Pty Ltd, developed something called the Quokkapad, with the input of an American academic, Professor Richard Bellaver of Ball State University, who has been conducting extensive research on ebooks.

The Quokkapad has an eight-inch colour touch screen with 800x600 resolution. Powered by a 400MHz MIPS processor with 64MB of ROM and 128MB of flash memory, which can be expanded up to 500MB internally, the Quokkapad is a Linux tablet PC, running version 2.7 of GPE Linux. That means it ships with Web browsing and email, calendar, to do, contact management and notetaking capabilities, in addition to audio playback and image viewing.

The Quokkapad was expected to cost around $500. It was aimed at the corporate, education and government marketplace, rather than consumers, to take advantage of the fact that large organisation can save millions of dollars a year by distributing their documents on electronic devices, rather than printing them.

But it shared the iLiad's ability to handle Mobipocket ebooks, and with Adobe expected to release a Linux version of its Digital Editions ebook software, the Quokkapad looked like a solid contender for something that could justify the enthusiasm of those New York publishers: an affordable, flexible, ebook reader/PDA. Unfortunately there were production problems, and its current state is a bit of a mystery .

The other contender is the Cybook Gen3, which also sold out on its release, and has been difficult to obtain in the US. Like the Sony Reader, it has a smaller (6-inch) E Ink screen than the 8.1-inch iLiad, but at $US350, it's substantially cheaper. It also shares the iLiad's commitment to more open e-book standards than Sony or the Kindle. I suspect that I'll buy either an iLiad or a Cybook Gen3 in 2008, and a lot of readers will do the same.


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