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18th June 2004 at 01:00
There's a new e-book on the block, so has the paper book finally met its match? George Cole

Whenever the topic of electronic books comes up, wags will tell you that if paper was invented today, it would be hailed as the most incredible display device ever developed. It's cheap, portable, easy to mass produce, comes in a huge variety of sizes, you can write on it, you can draw on it, you can fold it up and put it in your pocket - and it doesn't need a power supply.

It's a highly flexible and hugely versatile medium, and what is more, unlike electronic media, you don't need to worry about future generations being able to access it.

The latter refers to a time when the BBC Domesday Project ran into problems. In 1986, as part of the 800th anniversary of the Domesday Book, it was decided to create an electronic version. The original Domesday Book - written in 1086 - was compiled by monks who committed their records to paper. In the 1986 version, all the data - text, images, maps and film footage - was stored as data on 12-inch laserdiscs and accessed via BBC computers. Much of the data was compiled by thousands of school students.

But both the laserdisc and the BBC Computer became obsolete many years ago (although I suspect you can still find BBCs being used in some schools).

As a result, when researchers wanted to access the Domesday data, they found that their modern PCs couldn't read the data. It was as if someone had put the data into a locked safe and thrown away the key, except that this safe seemed to be impregnable. As many observed, it was ironic that records made more than 800 years ago could still be read today, while those less than 20 years old couldn't. Thankfully, there was a happy ending to this story in that researchers were able to find a way of accessing the 1986 Domesday Data and making it readable on modern computers. But those thousands of people who rushed out and bought the original Amstrad word processor which used 3-inch floppy disks are not so fortunate. So there is a lot to be said for sticking with paper when it comes to books.

Another fact is that the early electronic books were - to put it politely - somewhat disappointing. They used tiny displays which made it difficult to read text, the search engines were less than friendly and the devices used up battery power at an enormous rate. They also cost an arm and a leg. But supporters of electronic books point out that the latest products have better display systems, smarter search engines and are more efficient. They add that many of us now read text from a screen, whether it's reading newspapers online or using a PDA. Also, developments like Microsoft's ClearType font technology have helped make on-screen reading a more pleasurable experience.

Sony was one of the first companies to launch an electronic book back in the 1980s. It used 3-inch CD-Rom discs but failed to catch on. Now, the company is back with a new type of electronic book in Japan, which its supporters say is the first real e-book challenger to the paper version.

The Librie 1000-EP uses a new type of electronic paper developed by Philips and E-ink, which is claimed to give a paper-like experience when reading text on a screen.

The electronic paper consists of microcapsules that contain electrically charged black and white particles which remain on the screen even when the power is turned off. Most of the power is used when the display is changed and this greatly reduces battery power consumption. Three AAA batteries are sufficient for reading around 10,000 pages. The display is a 6-inch LCD screen offering 600 x 800 resolution at 170 dots-per-inch, and there is 10Mb of internal memory. By using a plug-in 512Mb Memory Stick card, users can store around 500 books. Books can also be downloaded from the internet.

The Librie also includes a Qwerty keyboard, speaker, earphone socket and a USB 2.0 connector for linking to a PC. It costs around pound;220 in Japan.

Initial reports suggest that the Librie has a few quirks, including a rather unfriendly digital rights management system that means that unless you continue paying for content, it is wiped after 60 days. At the launch, there were just 400 books. If electronic books are to take off, they will need to be cheaper and will have to be sold in the same way as paper books are today, and not on a limited basis. There will also need to be many thousands of e-books on offer. By the looks of things, paper books have still got a lot of life left in them.

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