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"E-books" gauge budding market

You can't judge a book by its cover, but now you can judge it by the quality of its LCD screen or handsome leather carrying case.

    You can't always judge a book by its cover, but now you can judge it by the quality of its LCD screen or handsome leather carrying case.

    NuvoMedia and SoftBook this week announced competing electronic book services, which the companies claim will revolutionize how the printed word is both read and sold.

    Both firms have created handheld computing

    A Softbook model
    A Softbook model
    devices enhanced by encryption software that allow users to download entire books from the Internet. To get a book, users connect to electronic booksellers via the Net, select their materials, and then receive an electronic version of a book on their device.

    The text and graphics of the electronic version can be presented in the same format as the printed version, or modified. Functions permit users to underline pages and change the type. Memory in the devices are capable of holding thousands of pages.

    The devices start at $200, and can include a monthly charge for the service. Eventually, "mainstream" handhelds like PalmPilots, Windows CE devices, and notebook computers could take on this kind of capability, although the electronic books currently boast of screens with higher resolution.

    Handheld readers are aimed at so-called road warriors, who purchase high-end notebook computers and handheld devices and might be tempted by the immediacy and convenience of instantly downloading bestsellers. NuvoMedia's RocketBook can also be used to store and display office files and other electronic data.

    NuvoMedia's marketing information also asserts that the publishing industry's growth has slowed over the last few years, and suggests that publishers will be attracted by the economy of the digital book. Additionally, since the RocketBook electronic reader encrypts each book that is downloaded, users are prevented from illegally copying and distributing downloaded content.

    SoftBook has partnered with publishing heavyweights Random House, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster to provide content for the readers, while NuvoMedia counts Barnes & Noble among its partners.

    Although the proposition of digital books is attractive to publishers for its low overhead and easy copyright protection, analysts remain skeptical. First, it remains to be seen whether consumers will take to the devices. These first electrobooks are limited-function devices based partly on proprietary technology. Consumers already can buy multifunction, standards-based handheld computers that can display text for reading.

    Second, even though handheld devices should eventually be able to access the services, the service may not catch on among those users, said Sherwood Research mobile computing analyst David Thor.

    "I have no idea how these things are going to succeed," he said, noting that to date, most PalmPilot third-party applications have been available for free. Books in the public domain can also be downloaded from the Internet.

    Thor believes that companies like NuvoMedia and SoftBook will follow the cellular phone industry's distribution model and make their proprietary readers available for free with a subscription to the service, as a "loss leader." Although they boast better screen quality than most handheld devices on the market today, Thor predicts a short life span for the devices.

    "If you're used to a PC or notebook, it's going to be okay to read on one of these things," he said. "But its definitely more tiring to use than a piece of paper."

    More discouraging, he said, were the results of a recent Sherwood survey concluding that almost 80 percent of respondents would rather print out a book using a file format like Adobe's Acrobat Reader, than download the content to a handheld device.

    The upshot, Thor says: "I don't think it will succeed past the novelty stage."