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Building a Better Book Reader

Publishers are tapping into a young audience by sending books to cell phones and flashing the text before users’ eyes–one word at a time.
November 3, 2006

New software that flashes words on cell-phone screens has traditional publishing houses chasing young readers with renewed interest.

Launched in England less than a year ago, ICUE software lets users read novels on their cell phone without the irritation of constantly scrolling through blocks of text displayed on the small screen. Instead, the text is flashed on the screen one word (or short phrase) at a time.

The simple java application is based on the tachistoscope, a rapid image recognition device. Invented by the United States Air Force, it was first used to train pilots to recognize enemy planes from a distance. The device was later used to teach speed-reading techniques.

Tachistoscope-inspired text readers have long been available over the Internet. New Zealand-based software developer Andrew Stephens released his, Word Up, three years ago. While Stephens has always believed the idea “could work well on a portable display,” he found its use “quite trippy.”

This doesn’t seem to be a problem for the 10,000 ICUE customers who are used to spending long periods of time staring at the rapidly moving images of video games.

“Our customers are split between business and tech-oriented readers and, obviously, teenagers,” says ICUE managing director Jane Tappuni. “It’s the 16-year-olds who are using us the most because they are the ones who are on their mobiles [cell phones] the most. Their reading is split between the classic list that has to do with what they’re reading at school and the contemporary list.”

“I’m fed up with having to let superb backlist titles go out of print when sales dwindle to a paltry few hundred because the majority of retailers don’t keep them on range,” says Cally Poplak, director of Egmont Press. “I’m fed up with having to turn down sensational teen fiction because it’s such a struggle to secure reasonable sales. This frustration has encouraged me to think about our industry in a different way.”

ICUE has entered into licensing deals for cell-phone e-books with major publishers like HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan, Pearson, Simon and Schuster, and Egmont, all of which have extensive young-adult or educational catalogs. While Tappuni says the company plans to launch ICUE in the United States, it will only do so once it has cracked the more technologically sophisticated UK market. “The UK is 18 months to two years ahead of the US cellular market,” Tappuni says. “Only 35 percent of Americans have sent a text message, as compared to almost 100 percent in the UK.”

Childwise Monitor research recently reported that 90 percent of British 13-to-16-year-olds use cellular phones. According to Tappuni, 80 percent of users who download ICUE and view the demo text then go on to purchase ebooks. The trend has educators taking notice. Tappuni says she often hears from teachers interested in making ICUE books available to their classes.

Reading experts believe that the technology should indeed be of interest to teachers.

“I would agree that the growing use of cell phones might increase student contact with a variety of texts,” says Richard Thurlow, educational psychologist and author of Linking Literacy and Technology. “However, the success of such technology with reluctant or developing readers would entirely depend on the readability levels and the interest levels of the texts available.”

A widespread adoption of reading long texts on cell phones would challenge the long-predicted rise of portable devices dedicated to reading electronic texts. That includes products like the Sony Reader, released last month.

“The Sony Reader, which our people have examined, is due to be a flop, just as with all the other dedicated hardware readers–totally the wrong business plan for the Internet age,” comments Michael Hart, cofounder of Project Gutenberg, a site that makes free public-domain texts available as e-books. “The difference is that there are a billion new cell phones made every year–nothing like that for any other such devices.”

Hart estimates that Project Gutenberg has about 20,000 free texts available for cell-phone download.

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