Fool.com: Curling Up With a Good Computer? [Fribble] March 29, 2000

Fribble Curling Up With a Good Computer?

By John R. Finger (jjrfinger@hotmail.com)
March 29, 2000

If you're like me, you don't know what to make of the emergence of the e-book on the tech scene. Will it revolutionize how we read or what we buy? Will bookstores even exist any more? Instead of going to Borders or Barnes & Noble, or one of the dwindling number of mom-and-pops, maybe we'll just download the latest novel and insert the text or disk into our palm-size e-book.

Can we get coffee with our e-books?

Books have always been singular things that, for the most part, have some substance and require a person's undivided attention. But, like everything else, books are changing, and the e-book is here. Anything you may want to read is on CD-ROM and designed to be fed into handheld computers the size of a paperback. Starting at $199 at places like Circuit City and specialty computer retailers, the price includes the device and three novels on disc. The cost, though, is prohibitive to all but the most ardent and forward-looking book lovers.

However, the price is likely to drop. Microsoft is making plans to sell e-books at very low prices, and the mantra, to paraphrase Patrick Henry, "Give me convenience or give me death" may ring out yet again across the land. Microsoft has made some bold predictions regarding the e-book. The company says that in just three years, its e-book device will weigh less than one pound, run eight hours a day, and cost as little as $99. By 2009, Microsoft says e-books will outsell the traditional paper variety in many categories. In 2020, the company also predicts, the dictionary will alter the definition of the word "book" to include things read on a screen.

A few authors have jumped on the e-bandwagon as well. Ubiquitous author Stephen King, who knows how to sell a book or two, released three serialized short stories called "Blood and Smoke" in January. Two of the three aren't available in the printed form, according to Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com, but you can get the CDs, audiotapes, and floppies. When and if the "book" is printed, it's expected to soar to the top of the bestseller lists.

So far, however, e-book sales have been sluggish. Companies have been dropping the retail prices on almost all of the e-book devices. NuvoMedia's RocketBook, for instance, has dropped from $300 to $199 in January.

But Microsoft, apparently, has a way to make the product take off. Before it converts the entire Library of Congress to e-books in 2015 (which it has offered to do), the company is going to introduce something called "ClearType." ClearType is a new digital type that triples the resolution of letters on Liquid Control Display screens by joining gray pixels to the edge of black letters, creating the perception of a softer black-to-white contrast that closely mirrors a printed page. You can also download the e-book to PCs running Windows and handheld devices running Windows CE.

For some reason, it just doesn't sound the same to me. A book has heft and character, and makes a delightful spine-cracking sound when it is opened. It may be a romantic view, but there's something about escaping from the world into the realm of literature that loses its innocence when its plastic in your hands instead of pulp.

On the flip side, its kind of fun to think you can probably e-mail a book to a friend and not have to worry about not having it returned.