Electronic books move past rough-draft stage

Momentum: Technology shows signs of life in new generation of devices from RCA.

January 08, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

If the story of the electronic book became a Hollywood flick, it would probably be called "The Gizmo That Wouldn't Die."

Two years after making its splashy debut, the device once hyped as the paperback's worst nightmare has turned out to be a technology more people read about than read on. Sales of the first two electronic books, the compact Rocket eBook and the heftier Softbook Reader, were sluggish. Critics complained the devices were too pricey, too hard to find, and just weren't as cozy to curl up with as good old paper.

And that's if you could find something to read. Worried about piracy, most publishers early on shied away from letting their A-list authors go digital.

But the e-book's rocky start hasn't scared consumer electronics giant Thompson Multimedia, maker of RCA-brand televisions, from giving e-books a go. Last month the company unveiled a new generation of e-books, the REB 1100 and 1200.

The launch comes at a time when the momentum behind e-books is building. More than 4,000 books are available in digital form. And Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) projects that one out of 10 books will be sold electronically by 2004.

Credit literary whales such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz, who have nudged their huge followings to the form by penning tales not available on paper. Microsoft, another big cheerleader for the technology, unveiled Microsoft Reader software to bring e-books to the millions who own desktops, laptops and handheld Palm PC computers. And while the first generation of devices was available only through the Web and obscure specialty stores, RCA e-books will sit on shelves in Best Buy, Circuit City and OfficeMax.

My first reaction was that the new RCA e-books looked remarkably unchanged from their predecessors. And, in a sense, they are. Last year Thompson scooped up the two Silicon Valley start-ups responsible for the Rocket eBook and Softbook Reader. Thompson engineers trimmed the size and weight of each and added a few features, such as an on-board modem. But that's about it. The successor to the Rocket eBook, the 18-ounce REB 1100, is about the size of a paperback book, has a black-and-white liquid-crystal display and costs $299. It comes with 8 megabytes of onboard memory, which works out to about 8,000 pages of text (fewer if there are lots of illustrations or pictures). Readers can add more memory by inserting a flash card.

The $699 REB 1200 descends from the Softbook Reader. Weighing in at 33 ounces, the device is almost a pound lighter than its predecessor. It comes with a brilliant color liquid-crystal display, a leather cover that doubles as an off switch, and 8 MB of storage.

I found that RCA e-books allow you to do everything a real book does and more. You can conduct text searches, annotate or dog-ear pages, insert bookmarks, highlight text, look up unfamiliar words in an onboard version of Webster's Dictionary, and make the print larger.

Both devices rely on touch-sensitive LCD screens and pop-up menus to navigate between books or chapters. You flip digital pages with thumb-sized toggle switches on the edge of each device.

The LCD screens on each model rendered text and graphics well under most lighting conditions. Because the screens are backlighted, you can even read with the room lights off. Under the harsh fluorescent lighting at my office, however, the REB 1200's color screen often looked washed out, making it hard, if not impossible, to decipher. The lithium-ion battery is rated for 20 hours of reading time between charges in the smaller model but just 4.5 in the larger one.

Stocking your e-books with digital volumes is fairly simple. Plug the e-book into a standard phone jack (the REB 1200 also has an Ethernet port), press a button, and the modem whisks you to a virtual bookstore where you place your order.

Thompson has teamed up with a company called Gemstar to provide content for the devices. Gemstar is no stranger to content: they supply all those annoying scrolling channel guides to cable providers. Still, its corporate connections have helped it snag not just more best sellers but periodicals such as Sports Illustrated and the New York Times.

Engrossed in the latest issue of Newsweek, I was soon clicking pages as if I had the real thing in my hands and envisioning a day when I wouldn't have to schlep copies of all my favorite books and mags to the local latte shop. That's where these things really shine over their paper counterparts.

But there are times when you are reminded that you don't have the real thing in your hands. My copy of Newsweek didn't have all the pictures that come in the print edition. Other publications, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, also have abbreviated content. Because the screens on the RCA e-books are smaller than a standard page, the text can look a little clunky.

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