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Culture

Reading between the e-lines

Now that San Francisco's Mission District has gone from "Skid Row" (as Jimmy Stewart gingerly refers to it in "Vertigo") to Silicon Back Alley, with dot-coms and swank eateries proliferating like Love Bugs in May, people in this part of town are finally learning the power of the dollar.

    Now that San Francisco's Mission District has gone from "Skid Row" (as Jimmy Stewart gingerly refers to it in "Vertigo") to Silicon Back Alley, with dot-coms and swank eateries proliferating like Love Bugs in May, people in this part of town are finally learning the power of the dollar. Just the other night, a well-heeled and well-liquored gentleman (using the term loosely) was seen at a trendy Mission establishment, waving a $50 bill in the air and demanding to know what it took "to get a drink around here."

    Clearly more than $50--a lesson Microsoft learned a long time ago when it decided it needed to pay for play--that is, offer cash prizes to content publishers who adopted its media technologies. First it was streaming media, but now we hear that Microsoft is back to its old tricks, this time with the nascent electronic books market. Here's the skinny from my son Vermel's classmate and fellow bookworm Jai Pegue, who's been boning up on the e-book market in advance of his back-to-school book-buying bonanza:

    "Adobe execs say the software giant has ponied up incentives--cash?--for book publishers to adopt its new Microsoft Reader e-books format," Jai Pegue reports. "And while the market for e-books is small, Microsoft and Adobe are battling it out to establish their competing technologies as a standard.

    "In the past year, Microsoft has signed up high-profile content and distribution deals with a number of publishers, including Time Warner's e-book initiative, dubbed iPublish, as well as Bertelsmann, Random House, Simon & Schuster, McGraw Hill, and online book merchants Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

    "Adobe also has its backers. Notably, Stephen King and Simon & Schuster published 'Riding the Bullet' using PDF. That experiment made e-books suddenly fashionable when consumers downloaded 400,000 copies of the novella in just days. Adobe also this week acquired e-book software company Glassbook, another Simon & Schuster partner, on that deal.

    "But one Adobe exec says the company is facing 'growing competitive threats' from rivals who are offering incentives to publishers for exclusives.

    "In May, for example, Microsoft won a deal from Random House for temporary exclusive e-book rights to titles from best-selling author Michael Crichton, including the newly released 'Timeline.'

    "Microsoft refused to discuss any of its deals with publishers.

    "A spokesman for Random House said the company is open to working with any and all e-book vendors offering credible products. He refused to talk specifically about any deals. Nevertheless, he suggested the company has received offers of incentives for exclusives, although he said the company 'hasn't been offered anything unreasonable.'

    "If history is any guide, the next page in Microsoft's playbook will be to integrate its Reader technology into its Windows operating systems and use its massive lead in the personal computer operating system market to try to edge out rivals, including Adobe.

    "Microsoft doesn't rule out the possibility of eventually melding its reader with other products.

    "'We believe the technology is powerful and that it may have relevance to other Microsoft products in the future,' a spokeswoman wrote in an email."

    Risqué Clies
    Thanks to Jai Pegue for that lucid dispatch. It's good to have such literate and capable young associates handy--they free me up to attend vital industry functions, such as this week's launch party for Sony's Clie--the consumer electronics giant's knockoff of the Palm V--at the Tribeca rooftop in New York. The event drew scribes looking for a sneak peak of the new device, along with the typical free booze, dim sum and sushi.

    But some writers were almost choking on their chicken dumplings and crudités as the PDA demonstration began--the lights dimmed to reveal six leotard-clad dancers writhing in neon tights and shaking their...Clies. Perhaps some in the Sony camp were similarly stupefied: At least two Sony execs sitting in the VIP section were seen sleeping through the demonstration.

    Demo gyrations aside, there was significant dissension inside Sony about the name for the device, which wasn't ironed out in time for PC Expo, when the PDA was first shown. Many Japanese employees had a hard time wrapping their tongues around "Clie," according to one Sony bigwig. "If we can't pronounce it, how are we going to sell it?" he wondered aloud.

    If you're going to be crashing, you might as well look smashing
    Some people read tea leaves, others fret over Alan Greenspan's choice of briefcase. Here in San Francisco, we attempt to tease meaning out of Steve Jobs' wardrobe.

    "He wasn't wearing a black turtleneck as he almost always does," noted one attendee at Jobs' Seybold presentation. "Instead, he had a white long-sleeve shirt and a black vest."

    "Love the outfit!" hollered one sartorially oriented audience member, presumably weary of black turtlenecks year after year.

    However, the new outfit couldn't save Jobs from his own computer. The newly spiffy Steve tried to demonstrate a feature in the new OS X operating system that allows Mac laptops to quickly wake up out of sleep mode. But a glitch caused the system to snooze much longer than anticipated.

    "When it works, it actually wakes in about one second," Jobs explained. That's what they all say. Send me your rumors and I'll wake up faster than you can crash a Mac.