September 1998 // Commentary
The Future of the Written Word
by Brett Swope
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Brett Swope "The Future of the Written Word" The Technology Source, September 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

During the last 1,500 years, the written word has undergone fairly gradual changes, evolving with the times. With the introduction of electronics, however, change has accelerated at unprecedented rates. Today, we face the advent of a new form of the written word: the electronic book. Four companies have developed electronic books that are due out this year. These books have some widely dissimilar features; all consist of at least one backlit screen, a rechargeable battery, and some type of storage device, but here the similarities end. Since this technology is so new, there are no current standards for file format, storage media, display size, power, or book distribution. Likewise, there is little agreement on the issue of copyright protection.

The Books

The SoftBook uses flash memory to hold 100,000 pages of text and pictures. It features a single 9.5" backlit black-and-white touch screen with variable font sizes. It includes a built-in 33.6 Kbps modem which it uses to connect to the SoftBookstore, allowing users to download books at a rate of 100 pages per minute. The rechargeable lithium ion battery of the SoftBook will last 5 hours on a one-hour charge.

The RocketBook can hold 4,000 pages of text and graphics in its memory. Its single black-and-white screen consists of a hybrid active- and passive-matrix LCD. The screen is also touch sensitive, allowing the user to highlight, annotate, link, bookmark, and reference text. Books are obtained via a PC from various Web bookstores. After the user downloads the books onto their computer, they can arrange them in their "personal library" and transfer books to the RocketBook via a serial cable. The RocketBook’s rechargeable nickel metal hydride battery can last up to 45 hours if the the backlit screen capability is not used, or 20 hours using the backlit screen.

The Everybook Dedicated Reader is able to hold up to 100 college textbooks or 1,000 novels on its removable disk cartridge. The display consists of two high-resolution, backlit, touch-sensitive LCD screens. Users have full annotation capabilities, as well as bookmarking and a built-in dictionary. Books are downloaded from the Everybook Store using the modem inside the Everybook. The battery of the Everybook lasts 4 to five hours on a full charge.

The Millenium Reader has a non-volatile memory that can hold approximately ten books at a time. It features a single backlit black-and-white screen with a proprietary bitmapped design that allows the reader to adjust font size and type. The screen is controlled by four buttons located beneath the screen. Books are downloaded through the Internet from the Librius World Library onto a PC, then transferred to the Millenium Reader through a serial port. The Reader will last for up to 18 hours on a single charge.

The Issues

It is obvious from the current electronic book specifications that standards and interoperability need to be discussed in order for electronic books to get past the novelty stage. All four of the readers mentioned use different hardware, software, and means of obtaining electronic books. It is easy to think of the problems that could arise from this lack of industry standards; a replay of the VHS versus Beta debate could easily happen in this industry if the problem is not addressed. This is where an electronic book workshop can assist the e-book industry.

If the current issues are to be resolved, we need an exchange of ideas among computer industry leaders, portable storage manufacturers, display manufacturers, electronic book developers, touch-screen manufacturers, personal digital assistant manufacturers, information technology experts, online bookstores, publishers, and teachers. We need to know more about current e-book concepts and prototypes, GUI interfaces and software for electronic books, storage devices for electronic content, standards and interoperability for electronic books, and applications of flat panel displays for electronic book readers.

The Workshop

We want to draw your attention to a workshop that will focus on e-books and the issues surrounding their use. On October 8 and 9, 1998, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), along with the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA), will host Electronic Book ’98: Turning a New Page in Knowledge Management. This workshop will focus on hand-held electronic books and portable devices that integrate displays and storage media for new forms of learning, work, and personal management. The goal of the workshop is to illustrate the current and future capabilities of a hand-held electronic book (e-book) and to identify issues relating to standards and interoperability for this emerging technology.

NIST has created an electronic book—JANUS. Features of JANUS include dual-touch sensitive color displays, annotation capability, dictionary lookup, and removable storage media. The purpose of the NIST prototype electronic book is to highlight user functions desirable in a commercial electronic book. NIST leaders want JANUS to serve as a test platform from which to develop consensus-based industry standards.

Illustrating the features of all the electronic books will not be an easy task, but it is necessary in order to provide building blocks for the electronic book industry and to ensure that electronic books become the newest tools for information management and dissemination. If this is to occur, agreement must be reached quickly as to what features are necessary and desired in an electronic book, and standards for obtaining and reading books must be discussed. The electronic book stands ready to take over as the next stage of the written word. First, though, the industry must pool its disparate ideas and conceptions into one common vision; in order to effect the next great change in communication, industry leaders must communicate.

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