REDMOND, Wash., July 7, 1999 — When Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable metal type 550 years ago, it transformed society for centuries to come. The printing press provided an efficient way to produce large volumes of written information. As a result, knowledge spread quickly, sparking the Renaissance and the worldwide exchange of ideas that exists today.
Like the printing press of the 15th century, we are now on the brink of an invention that promises to radically change society, according to Microsoft researcher Bill Hill. It’s called the electronic book, and Hill is working hard to make it happen.
“We’re on the verge of information becoming available anywhere, anytime — of highly readable books that never go out of print,”
“And the change that this is going to bring about in society is every bit as fundamental as the change the printing press brought about.”
Like the printed book, the electronic book or
will be a special device that’s easy to read, has a vertical layout and allows users to flip from page to page, Hill says. It will be just as comfortable to read as a printed book, yet it will offer more opportunities. For example, readers will be able to store a whole library of books on a single device the size of a paperback book, according to Hill. They’ll be able to search for specific information or look up words while they read. And they’ll be able to download any book they want from the Internet, any time they want.
“The electronic book can do a lot of things that a printed book can’t do, and will never be able to do,”
“It’s going to change every area of life you can think about where reading goes on.”
The Case for Reading Electronically
A 50-year-old Scotsman with a bushy beard and pony tail, Hill’s personality is every bit as colorful as his appearance. Speaking with a thick Scottish brogue, Hill is witty, dramatic, spirited. Talking to him only makes you want to discover more, just like the paperback thriller you cannot put down until you’ve reached the final page.
So what advantages do eBooks offer? Isn’t it good enough to read books in print? Hill’s response is passionate. The problem, he says, is that it’s simply not as comfortable to read books electronically as it is to read them in print. When reading electronically becomes easier, people will want to do it, and the advantages will become obvious.
One advantage is that consumers and businesses will be able to greatly reduce the amount of storage space they reserve for books since they’ll be able to store hundreds of books on a device the size of a paperback novel. Another is that they’ll no longer have to weigh themselves down with books while traveling.
“Wouldn’t it be really nice if you could slip your entire library into your coat pocket?”
Another benefit is that eBooks will offer people with disabilities the same access to books as the rest of the population, Hill says. For example, people who are blind will be able to download any book and play software that reads the books aloud. Moreover, people with visual impairments won’t be limited to the few books currently available in large print.
“It means that every book is available in large print sizes automatically because it just comes with the system,”
Yet another benefit, Hill says, is that eBooks will reduce the world’s consumption of paper.
“How much paper do the world’s businesses use in a year?”
“It’s incredible. There’s a huge infrastructure in place to deal with that — to grow trees, cut them down, transport them, pulp them, print on them, store that print, transport the printed material and send the unsold books back to the pulp plant to get pulped again and turned into other books. Think of what happens if we eliminate that infrastructure. There’s obviously going to be a certain amount of trauma associated with that change. But it’s inevitable, and in a world with a finite amount of resources, I think that will be a good thing.”
Ultimately, Hill says, the price of books will become cheaper because the infrastructure required to produce them electronically will be far less labor-intensive.
“Picture what this does to education in third world countries,”
“You have countries like China and Africa where people are unable to afford books or don’t have access to the books they need. As the cost of the hardware drops, you’ll be able to set up a local public library anywhere, with instant access to as much content as the Library of Congress, for a fraction of what a library costs today. You could have the same level of access for any village school.”
Reading electronically has implications that extend far beyond books, according to Hill. People will write on electronic tablets that recognize their handwriting. And they will read everything from magazines to business documents electronically.
“The interesting thing is that books are an extreme case because you read them for so long,”
“So if you solve the problem of the extreme case, you also solve the problem for all office documents, e-mail and all that kind of stuff.”
Reading All of Glasgow Public Library
Reading has been a priority for Hill since he was a small child growing up in Glasgow. The son of a steelworker who raised the family in a slum tenement, Hill was driven by his father’s desire that he learn to work with his head, and not just his hands. Intrigued by the comic books his babysitter brought to the house, he began to read at the age of 3. Soon afterwards, his parents bought him a children’s encyclopedia, which captured his imagination for two to three hours each day.
It was not long until Hill was hooked on reading.
“I think I read all of the Glasgow Public Library,”
“At one point I was reading about 17 books a week. I remember because I had to go to the library twice a week to check out new books.”
Hill says he has always been fascinated by the way books can hold readers’ attention and take them into foreign worlds.
“When you boil a book down to its essence, all it is is sooty marks on shredded trees. But it can hold and capture your attention for three or four hours at a time. The other magical thing about the book is that it disappears as you read it. You’re not even aware of the book because the real book is going on in your head. How does it do that? These are the kinds of questions that have always been in the back of my mind.”
Although reading remained a major part of Hill’s life into adulthood, the path to becoming a researcher in this area was a circuitous one. Hill began university as a civil engineer, but instead ended up a journalist for 18 years after his girlfriend convinced him to respond to a job ad. While working for the Scottish daily newspaper The Scotsman in the early 1980s, Hill realized that technology was beginning to change journalism.
“Journalism was trying to hold back the tide and keep things as they were, but newspapers were losing money and it was obvious that technology was going to change it all,”
Deciding to surf the technology tide rather than ignore it, Hill started to develop an interest in computers. He began writing on the side for Apple User magazine , which put him in touch with Paul Brainerd, president of Aldus Corp. The job also led him to obtain an early beta of PageMaker for a review he was writing on early desktop publishing packages.
“You could see the future right there,”
“It wasn’t going to happen right away, but PageMaker had a lot of functionality included in it, and you could see that electronic publishing was the future.”
In November 1985, a Scottish company called Office Work Stations contacted Hill and asked him to write the user manual for
the first hypertext authoring and reading application for the Macintosh. For the first time, Hill realized that eBooks could turn out to be something more tangible than the science fiction accounts he had seen on Star Trek.
A year later, Hill became one of five founding members of Aldus Corp.’s European headquarters based in Edinburgh, where he worked for the next nine years. He started out in public relations, then later moved into training materials development and interactive publishing.
“It was obvious even then that there were all kinds of problems in delivering readable type on the screen,”
In 1994, typographer Robert Norton approached Hill and asked him to lead Microsoft’s typography group. Initially, Hill wasn’t sure if Microsoft would be a good fit.
“When Microsoft approached me, I must confess, the scariest thing about it was coming to work for Microsoft, not coming to the USA,”
“I wasn’t sure how much Microsoft cared about the thing I cared about — typography.”
But Hill approached the interview with an open mind, and was impressed with the quality of work he observed.
“I came to Microsoft because I believed it was the one company in the world that could spearhead the transition from reading on paper to reading on the screen because it had the operating system, the resources, the installed base, the technology and the people,”
Shifting the Focus to the Screen
Among the things that impressed Hill was the fact that the typography group at Microsoft had already begun work to make fonts more readable on the computer screen. For example, the group had licensed the TrueType font format that allowed for the design of improved fonts for the screen, and had begun to hone the technology to make it even better. In addition, the group had incorporated TrueType into its Windows 3.1 operating system, a move Hill felt made screen fonts easier to read.
As head of the typography group, Hill decided to continue down the same path.
“I tried to build on some of the great work that the group had already done in screen technology because I really believed that was the future,”
“I feel that paper has a limited life left for business communication, for publications like newspapers and magazines and for a lot of books.”
Hill defined eBooks as the next big challenge, and reading on screen as the biggest barrier to meeting this challenge.
“It doesn’t matter to me how attractive the case is, how many electronic books I can get on it, how easy it is to download or how long the battery runs for,”
“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..”
Hill made it a goal to expand readers’ comfort level reading on screen. Specifically, he told the typography group he wanted the average reader to be able to read five full pages of text on the screen rather than the three paragraphs most currently read before pushing the print button.
“The interested thing is that about 95 percent of all business documents that are online don’t get printed out if you can achieve that,”
To help achieve his goal, Hill commissioned Matthew Carter, a world-renowned type designer, to create two new typefaces specifically for screen readability. Carter developed Verdana and Georgia, two classic typefaces that now ship with every version of the Windows operating system as well as Internet Explorer.
Hill also reasoned that to fix the problem of reading on screen, his group must first understand what goes on in the brain when people read. After studying the issue, Hill reached the conclusion that reading is both a conscious and subconscious process. While reading, the mind subconsciously recognizes words as patterns, freeing up the conscious mind to read the text for meaning. And elements like the shape and thickness of the characters, the spacing between characters and the way the characters are presented on the page help this process by making words recognizable as patterns on a subconscious level.
“When you learn to read, you learn the alphabet and first you learn d-o-o-r,”
“But at a certain point, things click in your brain and the word ‘door’ gets imprinted in your database of patterns that you recognize.”
If typography fails to execute typographical elements in proper proportion, Hill concluded, recognizing words becomes a conscious rather than subconscious task and ends up interfering with the process of reading.
“Poor readability happens when the task of recognizing words requires any of our conscious cognitive word processing because it interrupts the flow of the reading process,”
“And the problem on the computer screen is that it requires an effort. We may not necessarily recognize this, but it does require an effort.”
Co-workers say Hill’s emphasis on the psychology of reading was a breakthrough.
“Bill’s biggest contribution to electronic research was the realization that reading and understanding how people read was the key element to make this successful,”
says Greg Hitchcock, a Microsoft researcher who has worked with Hill for the past five years.
“This may seem obvious, but very little focus has ever been placed on this before.”
The Readability Breakthrough
Frustrated by the limits of existing typography technology to bring about screen readability, Hill in May 1998 joined an electronic book project headed by Dick Brass, vice president of Microsoft Research, and persuaded the group to continue the emphasis on screen readability. One of the problems, as the group defined it, is that screen resolutions today are about 80 to 106 dots per inch, far less than the 600 to 1,200 dots per inch of the typical laser printer.
As a result, the individual pixels or squares that make up type on the screen are too big, especially for words displayed in small sizes such as 9-point, 10-point and 11-point type. Because there are too few pixels available to create words of small sizes, letters appear jagged, and the mind must work consciously to recognize them, interfering with the reading process.
“Trying to portray type on the screen with today’s resolutions is like somebody actually painting a picture of the Mona Lisa with a paint roller,”
“The problem is you need a smaller size paint roller or even a brush.”
The group realized it could either wait five to 10 years for Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) computer screens to develop the higher screen resolution required to display today’s type clearly. Or it could bring eBooks to readers sooner by developing an advanced type technology that improves screen readability on today’s low-resolution computer screens.
“We said we don’t want to wait five or 10 years,”
“We want to do it now. We want to hasten the future.”
A few months later, the group got the breakthrough it needed. By finding a way to divide the pixel into three sub-pixels comprised of the red, green and blue lights that form the basis for color on a computer screen, the group was able to improve font display resolutions by as much as 300 percent over today’s resolutions. The group named this technology ClearType, and announced it in November at the COMDEX Fall ’98 computer conference.
“ClearType gives us a brush that’s one-third of the size of the brush we have today, and that allows us to create the most subtle features of type that work to make it more recognizable,”
Moving Beyond Gutenberg
Since ClearType was announced last year, Hill and the electronic book group have moved out of Microsoft Research and into the
“eMerging Technology Group”
at Microsoft, where they are building typefaces that are optimized for ClearType. They are working with industry leaders and publishers to develop an Open eBookstandard so that any eBook can be downloaded onto any hardware device. And they are laying the foundation to make it just as comfortable to read books electronically as it is to cuddle up with a paperback novel.
Already, the eBook market is slowly gathering momentum. For example, companies like Encyclopedia Britannica are selling more encyclopedias on CD-ROM than they ever sold in print. Hardware manufacturers are starting to develop specialized devices that can be used to read eBooks. And users already can buy more than 500 book titles electronically. But without the readability factor, Hill says, success so far has been limited.
“All of these things are still lacking in comparison to print,”
When a printed page of text is compared to an electronic page with ClearType text on an LCD screen, there’s no question — the electronic version appears easier to read. The research team has solved the biggest obstacle, and the next step is to get ClearType into the hands of customers.
“ClearType is the enabling technology,”
“We’ve set a quality bar that’s way above anything we’ve seen so far.”
With the invention of ClearType and eBook technology, Hill predicts that eBooks will become widespread within the next 2-1/2 years and commonplace within the next half decade. Ultimately, he says, the shift from paper to the computer screen will spur a transformation equal in magnitude to the printing press.
“The next five to 10 years will probably change society as much as the 200 or 300 years that happened after Gutenberg,”
“It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it’s going to happen very quickly. We’re on the verge of something.”