REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 24, 2001 — At a conceptual level, the basics of reading haven’t changed much through the centuries. Words or symbols embedded on a solid surface — whether stone tablets, scrolls or paper — carry a fixed message.
One year ago, however, the fundamentals of reading did change. The eBook industry was then little more than an idea, a pinch of experiment, a dose of research and a lot of vision. When Microsoft Reader was first released as an application for the Pocket PC, and, a few months later, for the desktop PC, a new era in reading began.
“In one year, we’ve demonstrated that electronic reading and building a market for eBooks is a practical reality,” says Dick Brass, vice president for Technology Development Relationships at Microsoft. “All along, we’ve said that building the eBook business is a long-term proposition. And we’re a company that builds for the long term.”
In the first year, according to Brass, there have been more than 4 million copies of Microsoft Reader distributed. Now, with improvements based on input from reading enthusiasts, partners, and publishers, Microsoft is set to unveil Microsoft Reader 2.0 in October, underscoring Microsoft’s commitment to eBooks.
“We’ve learned a lot in the past year,” Brass says. “We’ve learned that consumers want devices that are fun and easy to use and learn on. People want to be able to read the same book on a variety of devices, so we’ve worked to make Microsoft Reader eBooks available on multiple device platforms. That commitment will continue with upcoming software.”
Improving the Electronic Reading Experience
Key features in the new version of Microsoft Reader include a new user interface with design improvements that enhance how the reader interacts with the book, improved content availability across multiple devices, and the addition of text-to-speech features, Brass says.
The first thing eBook enthusiasts will notice is the new user interface, which is more sophisticated and clean than any other reading software. It offers new controls and menu buttons that Microsoft developed to make navigation easier while remaining understated and simple, allowing the reader’s attention to stay focused on reading — not the technology. Navigation is also aided by a new “riffle” control bar that can be toggled back and forth — simulating flipping through the pages of a book — and is also a visual representation of one’s position within the book.
For the mobile-computing crowd, Microsoft Reader 2.0 for the new Pocket PC 2002 supports Owner Exclusive eBooks, premium titles protected by Microsoft Reader’s highest level of security. Owner Exclusive eBooks are sold at major retailers such as Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Improved functionality, according to Microsoft, means Pocket PC 2002 owners will be able to read all eBooks in Microsoft Reader format and share them among devices. Previously, only the desktop version of Microsoft Reader was able to access Owner Exclusive eBooks.
The release of Microsoft Reader 2.0 will see an increase in the number of reading devices on which customers can read their eBooks. Activation upgrades Microsoft Reader so that readers can access premium titles that are copy-protected by publishers at the “Owner Exclusive” level. When readers activate Microsoft Reader, they will identify themselves as the user of the device. A new limit of four devices per reader means that readers can read their eBooks on desktop PCs at home and at work, laptop PC and Pocket PC 2002.
Brass says that Microsoft Reader 2.0 also gives eBooks a new voice. The product features improvements in accessibility with the new Text-to-Speech 1.0 Package. A separate download lets readers of non-Owner Exclusive eBooks listen with a synthetic speech engine. An optional verbosity feature provides voice support for navigation throughout the program. Moreover, Brass says, a new user interface offers easier navigation for any of the 12,000 audio titles available at Audible.com, from which audio files can be downloaded and stored in a library with other titles.
Other enhancements, Brass says, include support for external Web links within eBooks and the ability to select from multiple dictionaries and reference guides when looking up a word. New tools make it easy for publishers to develop dictionaries and reference guides. There’s also an updated and improved add-in for Microsoft Word 2002 and previous versions of Microsoft Word — called Read in Microsoft Reader — that enables easy creation of Microsoft Reader eBooks titles.
Looking Back — And Ahead
A key development in lifting the eBooks industry off the ground in the last year was the introduction of Microsoft Reader and Microsoft Digital Asset Server, which included content and retail partnerships with many of the world’s major publishers and resellers. At the core, Brass says, was a simple concept: replacing a cluttered, distracting on-screen reading experience with software that emulates a familiar book-like experience, with help from ClearType, Microsoft’s display technology, and added digital benefits such as instant word-lookup.
Mike Letts, who covers the eBook market for The Seybold Report, has spent the past year watching the embryonic industry. He says that the technology must contend with a basic but very serious challenge: print.
“Printed books are a useful and efficient tool, and they do their job extremely well,” he says. “They are ingrained in our culture. It will take time for people to adapt and become comfortable reading on a screen and not having books on a shelf.” Just as it took time, Letts recalls, for the Web and the concept of e-mail to take off.
“One of the things that Microsoft has brought to the market is a comprehensive, easy-to-use eBook application that runs on a variety of machines,” he says. “They’ve put an extremely large amount of time and effort into several key areas.”
One of the areas particularly important to readers, Letts says, is the quality of text. “The ClearType feature is a large step forward,” he says. Microsoft developed ClearType to enhance display resolution by as much as 300 percent on LCD screens. “It’s important for type to become more and more readable.”
Important not only to consumers, but also to other technology companies, Letts adds. “By getting ClearType out there, Microsoft has made it worthwhile for technology partners to get on board,” he says. “Microsoft’s willingness to engage the community at large is extremely important.”
Letts is encouraged by what he’s seen over the past year. “The movement has been phenomenal,” he says. “It’s extremely encouraging, and I think things will only get better as we move forward.”
David Seaman, director of the University of Virginia Library’s Etext Center, which operates one of the world’s largest and busiest public eBook libraries, was a slow convert. At first, Seaman was under whelmed by the concept. “It took me a while to see what was revolutionary about it,” he says. But it didn’t take him long to change his mind.
Drawing on a combination of funding sources, Seaman set out to build the Etext Center with an eye toward ease of use. Microsoft Reader, he says, made the translation process relatively painless and affordable. The response, Seaman reports, has been phenomenal. In the Etext Center’s first three months of delivering Microsoft Reader files, 1 million titles were shipped. Since then, the number has surpassed 3 million. Approximately 30,000 people visit the Etext Center’s online site daily.
“The numbers are bigger than any of us would have expected,” Seaman says. “With Microsoft’s partnership, it was proven rather quickly that the technology works. People are reading eBooks and they’re coming back for more.”
The reason, Seaman believes, is convenience. “People visit the Etext Center from around the world, from countries where Internet connections are very expensive, so they need a way to grab content quickly and get out,” he says. “The eBook is perfect for that. You can download one book per click.” Is the world ready for eBooks? “The answer is certainly yes,” Seaman says.
Skeptics, however, still suggest that eBooks will never take off. To these, Brass suggests looking at other emerging technologies of the past century, such as the automobile, the PC, the telephone, the television and the paperback book.
“Show me a technology that had everything worked out in its first year,” says Brass. “It took Henry Ford about five years of development to produce the Model T. Even then, it took him five more years to find a way to successfully mass-produce it. By comparison, our eBook technologies are doing quite well. We’re right on track.”