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Commentary: Will that e-book fit in my pocket?

The recent test of the e-book concept by Simon & Schuster and Stephen King was in some terms, although unwieldy, a success that has sparked further interest.

    See news story: E-publishing has lengths to go before making splash

    By Jim Lundy, Gartner Analyst

    The recent test of the e-book concept by Simon & Schuster and Stephen King was in some terms, although unwieldy, a success that has sparked further interest.

    While the profitability of the venture has yet to be determined, it obviously made an impression on the publishing industry. Suddenly everyone is lining up to be ready to distribute content electronically.

    However, the advantages of e-books are offset by some drawbacks. For consumers with low-speed modems, downloading an e-book is a challenge. This would be improved by book distribution on CDs or other physical media or by increased access to high-speed home Internet connections, but both of these developments will take some time to become ubiquitous.

    Once a customer has acquired the book, the comfort and convenience of reading it remains an issue. Reading onscreen is still a chore for many people. Indeed, many of those who downloaded King's book probably ended up printing it. Microsoft's Pocket PC will cut frustrating boot times and make on-screen reading easier, but e-books have yet to reach the convenience of a paperback, and even with ClearType, a screen is more tiring on the eyes than print on paper. Certainly this convenience gap between e-books and traditional books will decrease as handheld systems such as the Pocket PC are more widely adopted and screen technology continues to improve.

    However, tying e-book distribution to a specific piece of hardware may tie the hands of both readers and providers. Readers with home computers may not want to buy a new piece of equipment just to read their books on, or may want data portability so they can view their books at the office as well as at home. Making books available in highly portable formats can raise questions for providers.

    The issue of intellectual-property rights will certainly affect the speed with which e-book distribution is adopted. It is likely that e-book providers will want some mechanism that prevents the unlimited redistribution of their products.

    Rights management software such as ContentGuard protects intellectual property rights in content distributed over the Internet. Microsoft has established a relationship with ContentGuard--a Xerox spinoff--and will include the software in its Windows Media Player and the Microsoft Reader for electronic books.

    With the right mix of factors, e-book demand can exceed previous expectations. A key challenge for publishers is to support devices that are widely available, radically lower the cost of e-books, and tie them to urgent or compelling content.

    Moreover, the e-book outlook will change dramatically if completely new technologies like electronic ink or digital paper become available. Ultimately, it's not the viewing technology that will make e-books work, but the confluence of several technical, legal, financial and cultural decisions about methods of payment, protection of rights, distribution, comfort and convenience. It's likely to be 24 to 36 months before e-books become a widespread alternative to the ubiquitous newsstand paperback rack.

    Entire contents, Copyright ? 2000 Gartner Group, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.