Rocket eBook
Adobe eBook

Soon, readers will be able to digitally check out books from any library by clicking on the library's Web site, downloading a book into their notebook computer or reading device and taking it along to read on vacation. When their two-week lending period is up, they’ll just transmit the electronic book back to the library. Science fiction. No, almost reality, thanks to new electronic book technology.

Electronic books, or eBooks–hand-held computers designed specifically for reading, with lighting and software designed to imitate the printed book–hit stores last Fall. They’re basically high-tech reading tablets that hold the equivalent of thousands of paper pages. Readers download text into them, displaying it on built-in screens.

Avid readers have been a tough sell for companies trying to convince them that an electronic book is as enjoyable and easy to read as a traditional paperback or hardcover. The first ones were hard on the eyes, inconvenient to use and, worst of all, extremely limited in their content. But that’s changing rapidly.

EBooks let readers interact with and alter the text without permanently changing it. Readers can click a word to get its definition from a built-in dictionary (no more skipping unknown words), search the text for specific words or phrases, or depress a button to electronically "flip" through the pages. Readers can also highlight text, make notes on the screen and bookmark pages, and all the changes are automatically saved when the book's cover is closed.

For writers, this means a change in the way they conceive their book. An ebook isn’t just a printed book produced digitally. It’s a whole new concept–if done right–that affords the writers an interactivity with readers like never before. It’s a known fact that reading a computer screen of any kind is hard on the eyes. To make it easier, writing for ebooks needs to be in smaller, easier to digest doses. This means shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs, with a generous use of headings.

Rocket eBook
The first edition of these devices–the Rocket-eBook--came from NuvoMedia, of Mountain View, California, a division of Franklin Electronic Publishers. Recently, Rocket eBook merged with Softbook Press, Inc., of Menlo Park, California, to create eBook-Gemstar.com.

The new company offers ebooks produced by RCA. The light-weight (17 ounces), paperback-sized, monochrome model REB 1100, selling for $299, comes with 8MB (enough for about 20 books) and upgradeable with either 8mb or 128 mb SmartMedia cards, an internal V.34+, 33.6K modem, USB port for PC connection, infrared port,  and a back-lit touch screen. Its rechargeable lithium-ion internal batteries can handle 15 hours of reading with the back-light on and 35 hours with the back-light off. 

The slightly heavier (33 ounces), hard-back-sized REB 1200, selling for $699, with color screen offers 8mb of Compact Flash memory--enough to read 5,000 pages or four good-sized novels. This can be expanded to 128mb, which offers enough juice to read 130,000 pages. Unfortunately, the battery life lasts from 6-12 hours.

Both  REB models come with a stylus to underline passages and add notes, the ability to bookmark pages or favorite passages, the ability to increase the font size with one touch for easier reading, and the ability to change the page display so the book  can be held in either hand or read in a horizontal or vertical orientation. With the built-in modem , users can order new books from any phone line. And with the personal online bookshelf , users can store copies of their favorite books.

Recently, Franklin Electronic Publishers announced a sleek line of handheld electronic books that look very much like Palm Pilots. These have large 240 X 200 pixel LCD displays and give readers access to thousands of books, which they can read or hear as audio titles.

The company offers three models--the EBM 900, 901, and 911 in its EBookman line, priced at $129.95, $179.95, and $229.95, respectively. The EBM 900 features 8MB of memory, while the EBM 901 adds backlight and an enhanced LCD display. The EBM 911, top-of-the-line model, features 16MB of memory, additional content download offerings, and enhanced backlighting for the display. All of the devices also offer the ability to download and play back electronic books, audio books, and MP3 music files. Each model resembles a Palm Pilot with a similar screen and abilities. All models will also be compatible with the new Microsoft Reader coming out later this year.

Adobe eBook
Unlike the eBook-Gemstar models, Adobe eBook is software made for a PC. With the Adobe eBook Reader software, readers can read electronic books without having to buy any hardware beyond their computer. It supports Adobe Acrobat .PDF files, so publishers and authors can retain the design and layout of their books. This is ideal for all sorts of ebooks, especially the self-published variety.

Readers can download a free version of the Reader, which works best on a notebook PC, from Adobe, and create their personal digital library by buying and downloading books from the Web. The Plus version, which costs $39, adds a dictionary and text- and file-searching. It also gives readers the ability to lend or give their ebooks to others.

Access to e-books is easy. For eBooks-Gemstar.com, readers can download over 4,300 free books from Rocket Library or purchase them from Barnes & Noble.  Adobe eBooks are also offered by Barnes & Noble.

If compelling titles appear, ebooks could be an easy way for travelers to keep up with their business (and leisure) reading. But before readers rush out to buy an eBook device--and before writers begin to writer them--they should check the list of available titles. After all, it doesn't make sense to buy the box until there’s something to put in it.


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