E-publishing: The Wait for an E-book Format
Paul Hilts -- 11/6/00
With a single format nowhere in site, publishers seem content to let consumers decide

If nothing else, Gemstar's October 12 press conference announcing the launch of new devices and licensing agreements with several publishers (News, Oct. 16) highlighted the fact that the industry is nowhere near establishing a common e-book format that will permit consumers to read any e-book on whatever device they happen to own.

While the industry has worked through the Open eBook Forum to develop the Open eBook File Format, a general standard for digitally transmitting e-books to distributors, retailers and consumers, the technology for displaying and reading e-books on any of the current handheld devices remains a tower of Babel, with competing firms offering a variety of essentially proprietary formats. If you buy a Pocket PC, you're limited to e-books in Microsoft Reader format; Adobe Acrobat e-books can be read on laptops and desktop computers, but not on handheld devices; consumers looking for e-books for a Palm OS device are limited to publishers who have agreements with Peanut Press. Like Gemstar's two handheld devices, the other players all have limitations.

Also in this article:
MindSurf Beams Content into Schools
Decision Supports Web Copyrights

Historically, each new consumer-media technology introduced since the early 1980s--when the VHS video recording system vanquished Sony's BetaMax players to become the de facto VCR standard format--has been accompanied by pronouncements by industry players hoping to avoid the video-like competition wars. Personal computers, fax machines, CD-ROMs and portable telephones all faced format proliferation; each competitive conflict was ultimately settled by one format's backers giving consumers the best combination of most reliable function and affordable price--even when the ultimate winner wasn't necessarily the best technology.

Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly & Associates computer book publishers and a strong advocate of open systems and the Internet, feels he knows how a format or device could become the de facto standard. "When you look at Beta/VHS, or Apple vs. IBM, the winner was the one that was more open and allowed more access to what people wanted," he said.

Waiting for the Consumer
While the proliferation of formats may be causing confusion among consumers, most parties involved in the e-book industry are not discouraged by the competition among such companies as Gemstar, Micrososft and Adobe. For one thing, the competition ensures that one company is unlikely to dominate the way e-books will be distributed. Kate Tentler of Simon & Schuster Online said she is "totally happy" with all the various formats. She pointed out that different e-books may work better in different formats, although she believes a method needs to be developed that will allow e-books to play across different platforms.

Lightning Source CEO Ed Marino believes it is much too early in the development of e-books to expect a common format standard to exist, and observed that innovation often comes through competition and experimentation. He said he was encouraged that while the e-book community is not moving in step to develop devices, "they are going in the same direction." And even while there is no single system, Marino said it is important that there are existing authorized channels through which consumers can acquire e-books, if for no other reason than to avoid a Napster-like experience--i.e., leaving an industry vacuum that consumers deal with by getting e-book files any way they can.

Richard Sarnoff, CEO of Random House Ventures, said it's all about serving readers--"Three things matter: pricing, access and distribution channels. We're serving an audience through Gemstar; it has readers now." But the high cost of handheld devices (Gemstar's cheapest model is $300) is a primary concern shared by many industry members; virtually everyone PW spoke with was emphatic that the price of e-book readers must come down quickly. Steve Cohen, senior v-p/
finance, at St. Martin's, noted that publishers need sales from e-books to support the costs of the programs they are developing. He added that if the industry d sn't get an affordable device soon that will spur e-book sales "it's all going to collapse." While no one else made such a dire prediction, all agreed with's Greg Voynow that prices "need to come down quickly."

"Dedicated devices will have a place if they're cheap enough. The business models will be like cell phones or cable TV--you give away the device, and charge for the service," O'Reilly suggested. "But the more limited the uses, the cheaper they'll have to be." The new Franklin Electronic Publishing eBookMan, a "personal digital assistant" (PDA) can perform multiple tasks (it has an organizer and handwriting recognition function; and it can play and record music) much like a Palm, sells for less than half the price of the least expensive Palm. With prices starting at $129, the eBookman, due in the market this month, may push its competitors toward more attractive consumer pricing by Christmas.

In an ideal world, some company would produce a device that could read multiple formats. That's what happened in 1947, after an industry-wide agreement allowed competing phonograph manufacturers to include all the most common rotation speeds--33 and 45 rpm--on their players. And while the Open Ebook Forum may be the vehicle to reach such an agreement, it hasn't happened yet. In fact, it may simply be too early in the game to expect a universally satisfactory cross-platform e-book device.

At any rate, at this point, few e-book publishers seem willing to trade the security offered by Gemstar's dedicated device for the large audience numbers of less secure open system devices, such as Palm. Sarnoff said, "Publishers are not going to promote channels that don't protect copyright; we have to protect our authors' interests."

O'Reilly is not so sure. "Early computer games were priced very high, with security built in to protect against copying," he recalled. "Users cracked the security to avoid the cost. But when prices came down, the volume went up, and made it worthwhile for publishers." Palm OS has an estimated 10 million devices in use by consumers; Adobe Acrobat claims more than 160 million users running its software on desktop and laptop computers. The importance of a large installed base is best represented by Peanut Press, which makes e-books available for Palm devices. Several publishers contacted by PW noted that their bestselling e-titles invariably were from Peanut Press.

Despite the uncertainties in this very early and developing e-book market, Marino is sure that "this is the worst things will be. It only gets better from here."
--with reporting by Calvin Reid & Jim Milliot

MindSurf Beams Content into SchoolsThis past July, Sylvan Learning Systems, best known for educational services, and Aether Systems, a wireless data and products services company, embarked on a $70-million education venture called MindSurf. MindSurf is a mobile computing company launched specifically to use wireless technology to bring real-time information, including books, course materials and other content, into k-12 classrooms. Wireless technology allows phone calls, WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) applications, Internet pages and e-mails to be accessed via PDAs, cell phones, even wristwatches. Sylvan and Aether share ownership of the company, each with a 42% stake, while the remaining 16% is owned by Critical Path, an Internet messaging venture, and other small investors. Located in Baltimore, MindSurf has about 40 employees.

MindSurf installs wireless LANs in schools, allowing students, teachers, parents and administrators to use low-cost, handheld wireless devices to facilitate communication. "Wireless capabilities create real-time data interchange to make a new type of school environment. Information can be passed easily back and forth among groups of people," said David Long, v-p of product development for MindSurf.

Every student will receive a wireless device, so the teacher can beam school announcements, extra course material, calendar updates, reminders and grades directly to the devices. Students can also use them to take quizzes. Test scores can be tabulated immediately and teachers can use these instant results to pinpoint students' weaknesses and strengths. In addition, the devices enable parents to stay informed about grades, attendance, homework assignments and teachers' comments. MindSurf's technology and applications are "device neutral"--any type of wireless device can be selected for the appropriate grade or school. Long emphasized that the devices are not meant to replace paper or textbooks, but to work in tandem with them.

In October, MindSurf launched a pilot program at the River Hill High School in Clarksville, Md. A ninth-grade honors English class received Palm Vs and wireless modems. The pilot program is using e-dictionaries from Merriam-Webster and e-thesauruses from DDH Software, which produces software for handheld devices. Novels are downloaded from a variety of sites, including Peanut Press and, a Web site offering a variety of documents and e-books for PDAs and other handheld formats. The devices also provide Internet access, instant messaging, e-mail and calculators. Synchronization between teachers and students allows a teacher to provide extra notes, schedules, activities and assignments directly to the devices.

"The kids' adoption rate for this technology is strikingly fast," Long told PW, adding that more schools are being considered for a pilot program.

"A goal of MindSurf is to really individualize and personalize each student's education. We are creating the tools to make it easy to do that more often," Long said. MindSurf is in discussion with book publishers and curriculum developers for more course material. MindSurf plans to implement and sell its infrastructure for the next school year. For more information, visit
--Leslie Kang

Decision Supports Web CopyrightsActing on the recommendations of the Register of Copyrights, the Library of Congress has issued only two narrow exemptions from a statute in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The statute prohibits the development of technological measures that can circumvent encryption programs designed to protect the copyright of electronically published materials. According to the ruling, which went into effect October 28 and will last for three years, there are only two exemptions: the first pertains to access to lists of Web sites blocked by filtering software; the second gives users the right to bypass malfunctioning security features.

The ruling is seen as an important victory for copyright holders, who were eager to have the statute enforced as a way to prevent illegal copying of material that is published and distributed via the Internet. A spokesperson for the Association of American Publishers said the decision "supports the overall rationale that Congress had" when it made the anti-circumvention provision part of the DMCA. "We'll have to see how the decision shakes out in the marketplace," the spokesperson said.

The American Library Association, one of many groups that had argued that the provision severely limited fair use of electronic published materials, criticized the decision and said it would lead to a "pay-for-use" scenario. ALA president Nancy Kranich said, "The Copyright Office has issued a misguided ruling." The ALA and other library/educational groups have said they may request a reconsideration of the ruling or consider litigation.
--Jim Milliot