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Rumble in the E-Book Jungle

As software giants battle for e-book dominance, limits on standards and hardware still slow adoption.

Purveyors of electronic books (e-books) are coming off a watershed year, when a Web-distributed Stephen King novel propelled the emerging technology onto the evening news, and e-book sites and devices proliferated.

But in 2001, vendors are jockeying for position, hoping to dominate the market for “reader” software and hardware while industry standardization efforts plod along.

The software fight is led by two 800-pound gorillas-Adobe Systems and Microsoft-both of whom joined the battle only last year.

Adobe’s entrant, eBook Reader, uses the company’s immensely popular PDF file format to display a reasonable facsimile of a book’s typography and graphics on a PC or notebook screen. It competes directly against Microsoft’s Windows-based Microsoft Reader. A third company, Gemstar-TV Guide International, dominates the market in specialized e-book devices, thanks to its early-2000 acquisition of Nuvomedia and SoftBook Press.

Adobe upped the ante late last month with the debut of Acrobat eBook Reader 2.0 and Content Server 2.0 software, allowing online publishers to securely package, distribute and sell PDF content.

The upgrades are the first to include technology Adobe acquired last August when it purchased Boston-based Glassbook. This technology bolsters Adobe’s e-book platform with a text-to-speech feature, the ability to view two-page spreads and batch uploading so that publishers can more easily get their content onto the platform, said Keith Nathanson, an Adobe group product manager.

Pushing PDF

Adobe’s advantage in e-books comes largely from PDF’s existing popularity with both publishers and Web consumers. “A very large percentage of books today already exists in PDF because it’s used in the process that moves books to print,” Nathanson pointed out. He added that PDF lets publishers retain more of a book’s graphical richness.

Microsoft counters that it designed MS Reader from the ground up to display books on handheld devices by allowing users to adjust page and type size to different screens (though one industry source says Adobe will add this feature in a March upgrade).

But Nathanson and industry analysts said MS Reader has a paltry six fonts compared with the thousands supported by PDF and is best suited to showing novels, which are almost all type. “If you can’t preserve even the fonts, you can’t preserve the reader experience,” said Nathanson.

What’s Standard?

Adobe, Gemstar and Microsoft are duking it out while participating in the industry’s sole standards body, the Open eBook Forum (OEBF).

The OEBF’s first stab at common file formats-the Open eBook Publication Structure 1.0, released in September 1999-has been widely criticized because it lacks provisions for the digital rights management (DRM) needed to protect intellectual property. Hope for a DRM standard improved in December when OEBF merged with the Electronic Book Exchange (EBX) Working Group, which had issued a draft specification for DRM.

But OEBF’s relevance is under fire in a fast-moving market dominated by a handful of strong-willed players. “They try to please a lot of masters,” commented Dan O’Brien, senior analyst at Forrester Research. This results in a lowest-common-denominator standard. “It’s not great for complex layouts,” said O’Brien.

“The standards body can’t react fast enough,” agreed Sol Rosenberg, co-founder of New York-based Versaware, a format-neutral “e-publishing” provider and OEBF member. Rosenberg predicts publishers will eventually support several file formats, the way most Web multimedia companies support the QuickTime, RealNetworks and Windows Media formats.

Hard Limitations

Display technology-not competing standards-will hold back e-books’ potential, declared Susan Kevorkian, an analyst at International Data Corp. Today’s screens either cost too much for mass-market adoption or fall short of the 200 pixels per inch resolution needed for paper-like images, she said.

Kevorkian nonetheless predicts e-book hardware shipments to skyrocket from 153,000 this year to 1.7 million in 2004. “I’m pretty bullish about this technology,” she noted.

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