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PC program takes on e-books

A pair of programmers say they have found the solution to make reading electronic books on PCs less painful to the eyes.

Tired of stumbling blurry-eyed from hours in front of a computer screen? Would you rather pick up an old-fashioned paperback than struggle with blurry text and small fonts reading Pride and Prejudice online?

A pair of South Carolina programmers think they have the cure. Steve Winslett and Mark Shaughnessy have developed a new piece of online reading software, dubbed Easy Net Books, which they say makes text on PC monitors less painful to read and navigate. They hope to turn their freeware program, which is scheduled to be released in the next 30 days, into a viable way of selling and distributing electronic books online.

"We're actually making reading on a computer screen comfortable and enjoyable," said Winslett, chief executive of The Raleigh Computer Company. "With this you can actually sit back and put your feet up on your desk and read a book on your computer."

The pair designed the software program after working with attorneys on a system for allowing judges and juries to read court documents more easily. That same system is now being adapted for ordinary readers to use on their home computers.

Winslett said he hopes to take advantage of a market that has focused on bringing sexy new technology to shelves instead of honing in on why readers still aren't reading books online in large numbers. Most of the readers he has interviewed say computer text is uncomfortable to read for long periods of time, he added. His program tries to address that problem.

"Nothing out there now seems to have the readers and authors in mind," Winslett said. "Somebody's really missed the story out there. I think it's better to take time correcting the problems people have interacting with the monitor instead of focusing on the technology."

Winslett's book reader program modifies the text on a PC monitor to make it easier to read and navigate, he said. He won't yet detail all the improvements he's made, but says the program addresses text size, out-of-focus fonts, and hands-free navigation through the text, among other common user complaints.

He and his partner have also worked with dyslexic, colorblind and autistic readers to develop versions of the software that will make it easier for people with disabilities to read comfortably. These versions are still being tested, Winslett added.

The software text-reader itself will be free. It will include links to an online bookstore, where texts formatted for the software can be downloaded. Readers will pay for the individual books.

The electronic book market has yet to move beyond the fringes of the high-profile online book retail market, dominated by Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. A handful of small publishers offer electronic downloads of products, but large publishers have yet to venture far into the world of digital publishing.

But the last few months have seen a handful of new e-book systems pop up. The most visible have been portable electronic devices into which users can download full books or even libraries of books.

Softbook has partnered with Random House, Harper Collins, and Simon and Schuster to provide content for its handheld device, while NuvoMedia has joined with bookseller Barnes & Noble, among others, to help fill its RocketBook.

A group of publishers and technology companies are now working on developing a set of standards for the industry, allowing different manufacturers to create compatible eBook formats.

Easy Net Books will initially be light on the amount of content available through the system. Winslett's company, The Raleigh Computer Company, is in discussions with a local publisher, Boson Books, to provide close to 60 books in electronic form when the system is released.

The company as yet has had no bites from major publishers, but is hopeful. "We feel that publishers must want something better than what they've got now," Winslett said. "We're hoping some of them will be interested in this."

Analysts have as yet been cool to the electronic book market. A recent Sherwood Research report found that 80 percent of people in a study sample would rather print out a book than download it and read on one of the existing handheld devices.

The Easy Net Book system initially will be available only for PCs that run Microsoft's Windows operating systems.