eBook companies, armed with the digital technology that has the potential to transform the way we buy and read books, are starting to dabble in the education market.
New York-based WiZeUp.com and College Store Online will sell electronic versions of textbooks to United States university students this spring. The students will buy books online then download them on their computers. The WiZeUp software allows them to search the text and take notes, but prevents the books from being copied and resold.
Students at the Dallas Environmental Science Academy are testing an online curriculum developed by ActiveInk in response to a Texas Education Agency effort to introduce innovative technologies. They use laptops to access eeZone Online, but can download material into a SoftBook Reader (one of the main handheld electronic reading devices on the market) to use when they do not have access to a computer.
Meanwhile, netLibrary is this year giving 150,000 eBooks to the top 100 American public libraries for a six-month trial. Timothy Schiewe, netLibrary's president, believes that once library users have experienced eBooks they will be "hooked on this new way of acquiring and using information".
The first handheld electronic books arrived in 1998 in the US. They are about the size of a video cassette and twice as thick, weigh less than a kilo and can display a page at a time on a backlit liquid crystal screen. Palmtop organisers such as Psion can also be used, but the screen is smaller. Whatever device you use, eBooks will never match the sheer simplicity of a conventional book, but the devices are becoming easier to read (Microsoft's new ClearType software has helped here) and cheaper. The Rocket eBook costs $199 in the US and the British model will be about the same price, pound;120, when it arrives later this year. Ever-more-sophsticated technology allows readers to do many things that are not possible on paper: make notes on screen, highlight passages, search for words or phrases and create links to jump to another part of the book. Their most obvious advantage is their ability to store thousands of pages of text. The Rocket eBook Pro, for example, can hold at least 19,000 pages, the equivalent of about 50 short-ish novels. With a memory upgrade, the capacity rises to 50,000 pages.
To obtain a Rocket eBook title, you have to visit online booksellers such as Barnes and Noble, or ecampus.com, and pay for and download a file in a similar way to ordering a real book on the Net. The electronic version of Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, for example, costs the same on the Barnes and Noble site as the paperback ($11.20pound;7). There are hundreds of Rocket titles available, with the emphasis on popular fiction authors such as Stephen King and Frank McCourt, romance and business titles.
Gemstar, which makes the VCR Plus+ system used to programme video recorders, has bought both NuvoMedia, makers of the Rocket eBook, and its main competitor SoftBook Press, which produces the similar SoftBook Reader. The profile of the devices is expected to grow. Gemstar chairman and chief executive Henry Yuen confidently predicts that they will become a necessity rather than a novelty.
Andrew Rosenheim, managing director of Penguin Press, comments: "Anyone over 21 has an attachment to the printed book, but that predisposition is simply less true of young people who have grown up using computers and reading on them at home and at school. Over time, 30 years perhaps, eBook sales will supplant printed books." Only time will tell whether he is right, but it would be foolish to think that paper will always maintain its lead over microchips.