Firms seek to marry books, computers

NOVEL APPROACH TO DISKS

February 24, 1992|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,Knight-Ridder News Service

Computers have changed the way we work, the way we access information and the way we write.

But computers haven't changed the way we read. At least not yet.

Computers churn out massive volumes of printed reports because most people would still rather read text on paper than on a screen.

A handful of technology companies, small and large, are trying to overcome that reluctance with innovative hardware and software that aspire to be as user-friendly as a book.

The most visible of these efforts are the "expanded books" from Voyager Co. of Santa Monica, Calif. Last month, Voyager released three novels on floppy disk, each priced at $19.95, specifically designed to be read on an Apple PowerBook laptop computer.

John Sculley, Apple's president, displayed one of those titles -- the dinosaur techno-thriller novel "Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton -- during his Jan. 9 keynote speech at the annual Winter Consumer Electronics Show.

Mr. Sculley took the occasion to announce Apple's entry next year into the consumer electronics market with a vaguely defined product called a "personal digital assistant" that presumably will include, among its many features, the ability to display books.

The biggest obstacle to achieving this vision of reading on a computer is simply the book itself -- the ultimate in random access (readers can flip to any page within seconds), completely portable and free of any technical impediments such as limited battery life or incompatible formats.

"Is there a soul living today who wants to read 'War and Peace' on a computer screen?" asks Peter Black, president of Xiphias, a software company in Los Angeles that has put reference books on disk. "My gut instinct is no."

Voyager and other companies are trying to break that resistance by stressing lightweight computers like the 5-pound PowerBook and by designing graphic displays that resemble a printed page.

"Reading is more than just stringing words together -- it's how a page looks," explains Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future, a Menlo Park, Calif., think tank.

Voyager's three titles -- which also include the science-fiction satire "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and the annotated edition of "Alice in Wonderland" -- are something of an

experiment, an attempt to find out what people

want. The company, best known for releasing classic movies on laser discs, plans to issue three titles a month starting in April.

Florian Brody, a former librarian who heads the expanded books team at Voyager, says the company decided to go forward last summer after receiving a PowerBook prototype and deciding its combination of low weight and high-resolution graphics made the concept of electronic books marketable for the first time.

Even if the Voyager titles don't work on the PowerBook, Mr. Brody says the company will gain valuable experience, because the next generation of portable computers will likely be less expensive and more powerful.

Michael Hart, a computer scientist at Illinois Benedictine College in Lisle, Ill., is ready for that leap forward. He is the driving force behind "Project Gutenberg," an all-volunteer effort to put the text of classic books on disk. His group has already entered 30 titles ranging from "Moby Dick" to the "Federalist Papers" into magnetic memory.

Boasting that he lives "10 years in the future, at least," Mr. Hart predicts the rest of us will switch to reading on computer screens when computers become cheaper than books.

"What did it take to convince us to use a calculator? When it cost $10 and you could buy it at Kmart," Mr. Hart says. Within a few years, he says, a college student's entire four years of textbooks could be available on a single compact disc for $70 and could be viewed on a gadget small enough to fit in a pants pocket.

One of the first attempts to reach that goal is Booklink, a start-up effort organized by New York publishing consultant Nathaniel Lande.

His team is designing a book-reading device that would sell for about $400. Books could be stored on memory cards about the size of credit cards, and these cards could be updated with new titles at kiosks resembling automatic teller machines -- all for prices significantly less than those charged for books on paper.

If Mr. Lande can pull together the financing, hardware design and copyright agreements, Booklink could be up and running by mid-1994.

Meanwhile, a number of software companies are developing design standards that would support publication of electronic books.

Adobe Systems Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., is working on a project code-named Carousel that would create a standard format for storing the image of book pages so that electronic books could be swapped among all types of computers. Adobe's first product based on Carousel will be shipped sometime later this year.

Before summer, Slate Corp. of Scottsdale, Ariz., plans to release PenBook, a software tool to present pages of text on pen computers. Pen computers don't have keyboards, making them smaller and lighter than laptops, and are controlled by flicking a special pen on the display screen.

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