Review of some ebook technology
This column describes my experience to date with the dynamic creation and use of ebook data for Newton MessagePads, PalmPilot personal digital assistants, NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook, and SoftBook Press's SoftBook Reader. In a sentence, ebook technology effectively provides the means for reading electronic texts on portable devices but the functionality of these devices is not necessarily a superset of the functionality of print on paper; the functionality and business models of ebooks and traditional print media overlap.
Ebooks are not etexts
First, we need a definition. Ebooks are not the same as etexts. Ebooks connote a hardware/software combination used to read electronic data on a portable electronic device specifically designed for such purposes. Strictly speaking, ebook hardware is intended to do just one thing, read ebook data. Ebook data starts its "life" as etext, usually plain text or text marked up in HTML. At the present time there is no standard format for this data, but a standard is emerging based on HTML 3.2. The ebook data must then be converted through a software-based translator into a format readable and displayable by the ebook hardware.
Ebook hardware and software
There is a growing number of hardware devices available for reading ebook data. I have had the opportunity to evaluate NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook and Softbook Press's Softbook, and while not fitting my strict definition of ebook hardware above, I have also explored the possibility of using Newton MessagePads and PalmPilot devices as ebook readers. Devices not covered here include: desktop and portable computers, Everybook, Librius, Qubit, and Glassbook. A good Internet starting point for learning more about ebooks is the Open eBook Initiative. 
Apple Computer's pioneering but out-of-production Newton MessagePads continue to draw large numbers of avid users. User groups and Web pages focused on MessagePads are not difficult to find. With a minimum of moving parts, these devices consistently function properly and sell for prices equal to their original cost. They weigh about a pound and have a viewing area of 3" x 4". Some versions allow the viewing area to be oriented into portrait or landscape modes.
For creating ebook data from etexts, there are two applications available. The first is called Newton Press, a feature-rich application allowing you to create documents taking extreme advantage of the MessagePad's functionality: tables of contents, hyperlinking, images, styled text, bookmarks, annotations, etc. A simpler application is the freeware application called Paperback.  This program takes a plain text file, converts it into an application that is ultimately displayed the screen. It has much fewer features when compared to NewtonPress but it works quite well.
PalmPilots are the most popular personal digital assistants (PDA) on the market today. Like the MessagePads, they come equipped a calendar, to-do list manager, a note pad, and a contact database. PalmPilots are much smaller and lighter than the MessagePad were, about 3" x 5" and the viewing screen is even smaller, about 2.25" square! Finally, the four AAA batteries last much longer on PalmPilots than MessagePads.
Despite the diminutive size of the PalmPilots, there are active groups of people who produce and read electronic texts (ebooks) for PalmPilots. The data is saved in the native text format of the PalmPilot and viewed with a specialized application. The text has little if no formatting, and the content seems to be mostly content from the Project Gutenburg archives. In short, the device works, is popular, and even though the screen is tiny (to say the least) there is a desire to read electronic texts on it.
Nuvomedia's Rocket eBook (ReB)
Nuvomedia's Rocket eBook (ReB) is the first true ebook described here.  Its a bit bigger than a large commercial paperback novel. The screen is about the same size as a traditional paperback book. It's battery lasts about four or five hours and the screen is relatively easy to read. One of the nicer things about this hardware is its adaptability. For example you can change the orientation of the screen from portrait to landscape mode. Similarly you can rotate the display making it comfortable to use for right-handed people as well as left-handers. Compared to the other pieces of hardware described here, the hardware is fast allowing you to "turn the pages" of your ebook rather quickly.
Importing data into a ReB is painless. The hardware comes with some software called the Rocket Librarian for Windows and Macintosh computers. It allows you to download commercial texts from commercial sites. You can also feed the Rocket Librarian a URL and the software will retrieve the remote document, follow necessary links, capture images, and compile the whole thing into a single file. Once compiled, you can upload the file to your ReB via a serial connection. Nuvomedia has also made available a software-only implementation of their ReB. This software emulates your hardware and even comes with "skins" -- interfaces similar to the skins available for MP3 players. What's more, all this software is freely available for downloading. Nuvomedia seems to making its money on the sale of hardware and services rendered as a ebook redistributor.
SoftBook Press's SoftBook Reader
The SoftBook Reader made by SoftBook Press is by far the most elegant hardware/software solution described here.  The device is about the size of piece of 8.5 x 11" paper, and its weight is comparable to a small hardback book. Opening the leather "cover" automatically turns the hardware on and the display is a bit smaller than the hardware itself. The battery lasts between 3 and 4 hours. Like the ReB, the SoftBook Reader includes a number of buttons allowing you to turn pages and activate menu options. Like the Reb, SoftBook Reader comes equipped with a simple stylus allowing you to markup, draw, and/or annotate the ebook's text, but the SoftBook Reader's implementation simply looks better. Its hardware is a bit slower than Nuvomedia's but this could be blamed on the screen's larger size.
The most noticeable difference between SoftBook Reader and the other devices reviewed here is the process used to create and import ebook data. First of all, there is no way to connect the SoftBook Reader to your computer. The only input/output port on the Softbook is a standard telephone jack or an ethernet connection. To import content, you must connect the Softbook to an analog telephone line or intranet and have the Reader connect into an "infocenter". An infocenter is a sort of clearinghouse maintained by SoftBook Press. It knows about you and your SoftBook Reader because of the Reader's serial number. Once connected to the infocenter you can browse, purchase, and/or download ebook content.
The creation of ebook content is for SoftBook Readers is more complicated than the other options here, but the extra effort can pay off in better presentations of text. SoftBook Readers require strict adherence to a specification. For an extra hundreds of dollars you can purchase an application that creates ebook content, but the content won't compile into something the Reader will understand unless the content is marked up correctly. Furthermore, you will not be able to distribute your content unless you have an NT-based Web server at your disposal. On the other hand, the specification is closely tied to the hardware and provides opportunities to exploit its specific features in ways plain text or HTML can not hope to achieve.
Dynamically generating ebook data
The NCSU Libraries recently purchased a number of ReB's and SoftBook Readers for the purposes of garnering student and faculty input about these devices. The jury is still out on their use, but these purchases gave me the opportunity to explore ways content for these devices can be created on a large scale.
I began with the items in my Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts.  All the Catalogue's items are saved locally as plain text files. This makes the manipulation of the data (etexts) straight forward. I then proceeded to write a CGI script asking the user for the type of ebook they want to create, whether or not they want the etext unwrapped (good for prose, bad for poetry), and whether or not the resulting ebook data should be encoded (bad for Windows machines, good for Macintoshes). After completing the form, the CGI script retrieves the requested etext, applies very simple formatting, converts the formatted data into an ebook, and finally makes the resulting file a link ready for downloading. Presently I can create ebooks for the MessagePads, PalmPilots, and Reb's. By the time you read this I may have created an interface for the SoftBook Readers as well. On average, the time to create each ebook is about fifteen seconds, and about twenty-five to thirty ebooks are made daily.
There are two drawbacks to the system. First, the original content is only as good as the content of the Catalogue, and the Catalogue contains only public domain texts in the areas of American and English literature as well as Western philosophy. This is comprised of about 650 etexts. Second, the formatting the script implements is rudimentary at best; no stylistic elements are added to the formatting and when poetry and prose are combined in any etext the presentation is not always the best. Alex says, "You get what you pay for."
In my opinion, ebooks represent an alternative method for disseminating and reading information. They provide a supplement to paper, 'faxes, email, Web pages, etc. They are a means for saving multiple etexts on portable devices. Because they are electronic they allow for user interaction such as simple searches, highlighting, and dictionary lookups. They do not provide the means for printing, nor do they easily allow you to share texts, especially commercially produced documents. Consequently, these devices may find more favor in the corporate environment and less so in the public sector.
Ebooks are sort of fun to use. They are a bit of a novelty. This novelty can quickly wear off. Despite this fact, ebooks could have a place in libraries. In my own library we might be able to create entire course reserves in ebook format and distribute ebook hardware instead of paper. Ebooks could be lent to users of the library in our reading rooms. Ebooks could be filled with content describing how to use the library -- library guides. This would include pathfinders, maps, instructions for computer interfaces, and/or general information about the libraries, but as I said before, the jury is still out. Ebooks certainly are a libraries of the future sort of thing.
Finally, this is my last column for Computers in Libraries. It's been fun but Alex is calling me. He keeps asking me to come back. Thank you for the opportunity to share my ideas with y'all, and don't hesitate to send me email. I love to get email.
- Open eBook Initiative - http://www.openebook.org/
- Paperback - http://www.thefedors.com/pobox/
- NuvoMedia - http://www.nuvomedia.com/
- SoftBook Press - http://www.softbook.com/
- Dynamic ebook creation from the Alex Catalogue - http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/alex/cgi-bin/configure-ebook.pl
Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <email@example.com>
Source: This text is a pre-edited version of a column originally written for Computers in Libraries.
Date created: 1999-09-10
Date updated: 2004-11-14