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The tomes they are a-changin';Hands on

Hugh John looks at the books of the future at Microsoft USA

Dick Brass, vice-president of Microsoft Research, doesn't believe in understatement: "We live in great reverence of the book. We're not enemies of the book; we're big fans. We're worshippers of the book here. We are people of the book. Our goal, and my design imperative for the team isI make it like a book. And if we can do that, and then add all the things a computer can do, I think we're in good shape."

Having spent a large part of his career in journalism and the computer industry and only two years at Microsoft, Brass' attitude presents a compelling overview of the emerging electronic book, or eBook, industry - the word "persuasive" does not do his evangelism justice.

Microsoft has proposed a non-proprietary standard (open eBook) that would, if adopted, define a common format for the translation of print into electronic form. The initial meeting of eBook publishers, hardware and software companies took place in January and included HarperCollins, Random House, Hitachi, SoftBook Press and NuvoMedia. And perhaps still smarting over claims that it tried to hijack the Java programming language for its own ends, Microsoft has suggested a third-party standards body be appointed.

The electronic book has been a feature of science fiction for most of this century - HG Wells anticipated it 70 years ago - but it has remained a concept. So, what's changed?

The answer is "readability". Anyone who has scrolled through an electronic encyclopedia or read web pages online will know how tiring it is. The reason is that screen resolution (72-108 dots per inch) does not approach the clarity of the printed page (600-1,200dpi). However, with the development of its ClearType font technology, which is claimed to improve screen resolutions by as much as 300 per cent, the Microsoft team feels it is on the verge of a breakthrough.

ClearType can be used with LCD displays and the software may be included in some Microsoft products before the end of the year. But, as Microsoft researcher Bill Hill acknowledges: "The rubber meets the road when I open my electronic book and try to read it - if it's not readable the whole category of electronic books will skid to a halt."

Books in electronic form can be easily configured for those with visual difficulties, print size can be enlarged at will and, for early learners, text can be accompanied by sound. Some electronic encylopedias are available with sophisticated speech-to-text software that makes navigation possible for anyone who has difficulty with mouse or keyboard. EBooks can also function as talking books.

The first eBooks are already on the market. Rocket eBook from NuvoMedia can store up to 4,000 pages and weighs just 22 ounces. At pound;200 it may seem expensive, but as more content becomes available, production costs will fall; industry analysts expect the books or tablets to be sold as loss leaders to stimulate a fledgling, but potentially huge, market.

Ah, but the ambience of wood-based media: the well-thumbed copy, the flyleaf inscriptions, the secondhand bookshops. Well, yes, but the tomes they are a-changin'. Small electronic devices are used increasingly in the workplace and extensively for play - think GameBoy - and we are more at ease with garnering information from screens.

Whether, as Hill claims, "the next five to 10 years will probably change society as much as the 200 or 300 years after Gutenberg," is still to be seen. What can be said is that if an open eBook standard is agreed, and if ClearType does prove the answer to screen resolution, our reading habits are set to change forever.

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