The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 20, 2000
Lead Article

A book is now just a mouse-click away
By Roopinder Singh

WILL the familiar object with which we curl up in bed every other day — the one that makes us laugh and cry; the one we cherish and, at times, hate — be quite the same ever again? Good things, they say, do not remain the same. So why should we expect the one constant of this century to be an exception? Well, maybe, it is because we don’t quite know how to do without books. Two
free resources

It has been quite some journey for the spoken word to become written word. Writing travelled from the medium of stone to masonry, from skins to papyrus; then to paper and now to the electronic format. The writing tools have evolved from chisels, pens, lead composing to electronic typesetting. The final product has thus moved from stone to the computer screen.

  Sketch by R. M. SinghWhat exactly are electronic books? Andries Van Dam of Brown University in USA coined the term electronic book more than 20 years ago. In a basic way, it is a book that has been converted to a digital form and can be read on a computer.

Various versions of electronic text have been around for decades. People routinely read text on computer screens, but a computer monitor is not to be taken for a book. Even hand-held computers and Personal Digital Assistants (PDA) can’t be taken for a book, though, that hasn’t stopped efforts to sell versions of electronic books for everything from desktop computers to PDAs.

When we refer to a book, we are talking about a physical entity that has content printed on it. It is a set of written, printed sheets bound as a volume. However, e-book is the content and it is read by a device that is called an e-book reader. As often happens, the two words are often used interchangeably.

E-book is a recent phenomenon. It is basically a portable computer designed to display pages on a screen. Electronic books go a step ahead of the print version by adding hypertext links, search and cross-reference functions, and multimedia. Hypertext is the presentation of links to related information on a network which readers are free to navigate in a non-linear fashion. It allows for multiple authors, a blurring of the author and reader functions, extended works with diffused boundaries, and multiple reading paths.

Various factors, basically technology convergence, got together to make this possible. At one level, it was the development of display technology that enabled manufacturers to produce screens that were large and light enough, while at the other, there were major advances in the way typefaces are displayed on-screen. Batteries, on which portable omputers work, have also seen a great deal of improvement in the past few years. At the same time, the prices of memory and semiconductors have crashed to a level where it is a non-issue. All this has contributed to the making of e-book devices possible.

How do you get content on such e-book readers? This is where the advances in communications and the burgeoning of the Internet have helped. Though e-book readers come loaded with some basic content, the rest is downloaded via the Internet from a variety of sites.

Different companies bring out varying versions of e-book readers, but what they have in common is that they are basically flat tablet-shaped gadgets that are held and read just like a book. All of the e-book readers use touch-sensitive LCD screens (varying in size from 4.5 x 3.0-inch for Rocket eBook to 8 x 6-inch for SoftBook) and can store several full-sized books in their memory. There is a simple switch to flip pages and you can use a stylus to leave bookmarks, highlight text, make notes etc. As compared with the PDAs, e-book readers have larger screens and more memory. Each can store several big books in its memory.

You basically download a book, usually via the Internet, and then have the option of choosing how it is to be displayed on screen, including the type, its size etc.

Having gone through various forms in the past few years, e-books are now widely available and there is a fair number of e-titles to choose from. As has, unfortunately, become common in the world of computers, there are different formats for competing brands, resulting in confusion in the minds of the common people. However, the recent Open Electronic Book (OEB) Standards Initiative, is addressing this problem. Coupled with this, is the charge that as compared with their paper counterparts, e-book readers are expensive, fragile and hard to read.

Advocates of the new gizmos, however, have answers for that. As Kimberly Woodward, director of marketing of the Enterprise Technology Group of SoftBook Press, said in an interview: "In the technology segment, price goes down and functionality increases as the category matures. This has happened with semiconductors, computers, VCRs, and cell phones, to name a few examples. The same will happen to e-book readers."

At the same time, no one expects e-book readers to be as cheap as paper books (the content if often priced at the same rate), though in the past few months, the cost of a model of the popular Rocket eBook has fallen from $500 to $200. Also, the recent acquisition by Gemstar International Group Ltd of the two leading e-book companies, NuvoMedia Inc., maker of the Rocket eBook, and SoftBook Press Inc., maker of the SoftBook Reader, last month has caused much excitement in the e-book market.

What the vendors are promising is value addition. E-books can do a lot more than traditional books. Besides, they have a distinct advantage over their rivals in distribution cost. They are virtually nothing, though till now the e-publishers have not been passing on the savings to the customers.

Because they are downloaded from the Internet, e-books are also very easy to update.It makes such books attractive to professionals, like doctors, engineers and lawyers, who need updated reference information. Such professionals often buy expensive reference books and then buy updates. With a typical capacity of storing over 55,000 to 85,000 pages, e-books can replace tomes with ease.

Imagine having multi-volume reference material stored in an e-book with you whenever, wherever you need them. Also, the publishers can offer updates at substantial discounts because of the low costs of distribution.

The search and indexing capabilities that e-books offer make them very valuable for users. They often translate into saving time. Text can be indexed, searched and hyperlinked. (Hypertext is a term coined by Ted Nelson around 1965 for a collection of documents or "nodes" containing cross-references or "links" which, with the aid of an interactive browser programme, allow the reader to move easily from one document to another. A hyperlink is a reference (link) from some point in one hypertext document to a particular point in another document or another place in the same document. When the user activates the link by clicking on it with the mouse, the browser will display the target of the link. This would allow real interactivity in such books and make them score over their paper counterparts in a decisive manner. This is why electronic versions of reference works in CDs have become popular.)

E-books have come a long way since the 1930s when Vannevar Bush thought of the Memex. In his ground-breaking article, "As We May Think" published in Atlantic Monthly (1945), he wrote of a Memex, "A device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanised so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility." Bush saw the ability to navigate the enormous data store as a more important development than the futuristic hardware. He directly influenced the development of the concept of hyperlinks, and, in a way, the Internet became a giant Memex.

If you don’t have access to the portable e-book readers, you can still download e-texts and read them on you computer. This would also give you an additional advantage. Most new computers, especially Macs, have text-to-speech facility with which the text can be read out to you! You even have a menu of voices to choose from.

This is where the strength of e-books lies: the ability to navigate through enormous amount of knowledge. E-book readers will primarily be bought for their research ability, which would justify the cost, and, of course, once the market is there, they can be used for anything.

A pointer to the future is the way the encyclopaedias have gone — most, if not, all major encyclopaedias are now available on CD-ROMs or DVD-ROMs. The computerised versions have sound, better pictures and are far easier to search than the paper versions, which are becoming an anomaly.

As Sarab Singh, a Class V student in Chandigarh, put it: "Why should I lug the Encyclopaedia Britannica and search for something in a two-volume index when all I have to do is pop in a CD in my Mac and get it in two minutes?"

This is what school children of today expect. This is the next target of the e-book sellers. Imagine replacing the above 5-kg school bag with a book that weighs less than one kilogram!. Instead of pulling the requisite book from the bag at the end of every period, it will then be just a click away.

Two valuable free resources:
(Links open in new windows)

The Internet Public Library

The Internet Public Library, Online Texts Collection contains over 10,000 titles that can be browsed by author, by title, or by Dewey Subject Classification. In 1995, Joe Janes, an assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Studies at the University of Michigan, wanted to try to integrate library studies with the World Wide Web. He wanted to further explore the merger of networking and libraries by planning, building, and running a digital library on the Internet based on the public-library model. He selected 35 students at the School of Information and Library Studies and started the project that took a lot of dedication and hard work. However, from the moment it went online, the IPL was an astounding success.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg was started by Michael Hart in 1971. It is a coalition of volunteers that has been collecting out-of-copyright titles and offering them to the public free of cost. The site now lists over 2,000 titles, from As You Like It to Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon, and its links can whisk you to other archives with hundreds of titles. The latest listing shows many works by Rudyard Kipling, including Under the Deodars, Plain Tales from the Hills and The Light That Failed.