Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Personal Computing: from P-Books to E-Books

As better technology becomes available, books in the electronic age are taking on a whole new look and feel.
  1. Introduction
  2. Technology
  3. Business Considerations
  4. References
  5. Author
  6. Footnotes

The dream of electronic books has been with us at least since Vannevar Bush published his famous article, "As We May Think," in which he speculated on a desk-sized machine that would hold one’s personal writing and library [1]. Alan Kay named his prototype of the modern PC the Dynabook, and related research has been done at prestigious centers including Xerox PARC, MIT, Bell Labs, and Brown University. I have speculated about e-books and portable devices earlier (see [6, 7]), but am still reading paper books (p-books) because content is abundant and user interaction is simple and subconscious. The idea of an e-book is appealing—a single device with an entire library of interlinked documents, dictionary lookup, unlimited, sharable annotation, search capability, and so forth. But the technology to date has not been good enough to displace the p-book. Is it now?

For a first pass at answering that question, I looked at two new e-book devices, the Rocket Ebook (REB) from NuvoMedia (www.nuvomedia.com) and the Softbook (SB) from Softbook Press (www.softbook.com). Both are PC pads with flash RAM storage and backlit, touch-sensitive monochrome screens. The REB is 5" x 7.5" and weighs 22 ounces; the SB is 8.75" x 8.5" and weighs 2.9 pounds. Both are designed solely for reading and annotating documents and have simple user interfaces. The REB has three buttons: on/off, page forward and page backward, and the SB has four buttons: a neat rocker switch for next/previous page plus menu, top-of-document, and device-contents buttons.

If I were an early gadget adopter or traveled a lot, I would own one of these devices. I prefer them to a standard laptop PC for reading. They balance well, have reasonable battery life, are small and light, turn pages fairly thoughtlessly, boot quickly and never display the Windows "blue screen of death." However, I am not ready to purchase one today because new technology and business models are being developed that will lead to improved devices and the availability of more content. Let’s examine some of the technology and the business considerations.

If you check a student’s backpack, you might find a PDA, CD or MP3 music player, cell phone, books, and notebooks. In a few years, these applications will all fit in a package the size of an e-book.

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CPU speed is steadily improving, and more horsepower will be helpful. Boot time for both the REB and SB is under five seconds, but the time to open a document by loading it from storage to RAM is noticeable. The REB is slowest, taking about 25 seconds to load the Random House Dictionary. More subtle, but more important, is the time it takes to "turn" a page. The REB takes what seems to be about a second, and the SB is faster, but the time to paint a new page is still noticeable. If one is to become lost or absorbed in reading, the device must become transparent, disappearing from consciousness. Page-turn times should be imperceptible, and the page-turn gesture thoughtless. E-books have an advantage over p-books here—the page toggle bar on the SB is superior to the buttons on the REB, and both beat a p-book.

CPU power consumption has also improved steadily during the last decade with new chip processes, shrinking feature sizes, and lower voltage levels. Operating systems have also become more efficient, slowing or stopping processors to save power when full speed is not needed. Transmeta (www.transmeta.com), may realize further power savings with its newly announced x86-compatible CPUs targeted for handheld and notebook devices. Transmeta’s voltage and clock rates can be changed on the fly, and benchmarks show substantial power savings over x86 processors at comparable application speeds. Of course, the systems use power for displays, storage, and other components as well as the CPU. The REB claims 20–40 hours between charges, depending upon settings and usage, and the SB claims five hours. These are respectable figures using today’s technology, and we can look forward to improvement.

Storage is another key element. The speed, capacity, and cost of flash storage have improved steadily over time and it has been used in many portable devices, including today’s e-books, which come with between 2MB–32MB. To calibrate this, I loaded five newspapers and magazines and four books totaling 1,238 pages in an 8MB SB. This is sufficient for reading on a plane or a weekend vacation, but it is not the lifetime library Vannevar Bush dreamt of. The capacity of rotating devices like IBM’s 340MB, one-inch micro disk (www.storage.ibm. com/hardsoft/diskdrdl/micro), is greater today, but in the long run, electronic storage would seem more robust and power efficient. Matchbook-size compact flash capacities are around 200MB, flash PC cards hold 1.2GB; prices fall by around 50% and capacity doubles every year or so.

Screen technology has not improved as quickly as electronics or storage. We have not seen Moore’s Law improvements in pixel density, contrast, power consumption, and so forth, but costs are falling. The reading area on the REB screen is about 3" x 4.5" and the SB 5.9" x 7.5".1 If after 500 years we have not converged on a standard page size for p-books, there probably is no optimal screen size for e-books. However, subjectively, the REB is too small for extended general reading. On the other hand, it is fine for more limited reading, and the small screen saves power, allows a slower processor than the SB, and results in a smaller, lighter device. In the long run, new technology may eliminate such tradeoffs. For example, the LCD display may give way to products based on electronic paper (www.parc.xerox. com/dhl/projects/epaper/), from Xerox or electronic ink, (www.eink.com/index.htm), spun off from the MIT Media Lab [8]. These hope to deliver high contrast, low-power, thin, light, and rugged displays that can be read without backlighting and in daylight, but it is too soon to say whether they will succeed.

New software will also improve the legibility of today’s LCD displays. Microsoft ClearType (www.microsoft.com/typography/cleartype) essentially increases screen resolution by addressing the red, green, and blue sub-pixels of an LCD display, producing clearly sharper text than full-pixel antialiasing.2 Microsoft has many years of experience in screen readability, having commissioned the Georgia and Verdana fonts expressly for the screen, and having developed TrueType outlines and hints. ClearType researcher Bill Hill believes we subconsciously recognize word shapes when reading p-books. The technology to facilitate this has been developed over hundreds of years of subtle changes in typography and page design, and it involves roughly 20 factors, such as kerning, leading, and serifs. The higher resolution of a ClearType display makes these possible on today’s LCD screens. ClearType is now available in some pocket-sized machines, and they will soon ship Reader, a ClearType-based program for reading on notebook computers. Microsoft is committed to including ClearType in Windows 2000 when product release cycles permit, though it will become less critical as LCD densities increase. (LCD densities are expected to double in the next year or two.)

Network connectivity is also integral to e-books, and both the REB and SB download their content. The SB has a built-in modem, and a single click dials a server where one orders and downloads books and periodicals. An Ethernet interface is also available. The REB comes with a cradle that plugs into the serial port of a PC used to download content from a Web site. The SB scheme is simpler for the user, and, since the content is never on a PC, it is more secure for the publisher.

With future products, one might download reading (or listening or viewing) material to a PC, save it on a PC card or other media, and plug that into an e-book. Given sufficient bandwidth, we might download entire works to e-books or read them directly over a wireless network connection. Third-generation cellular standards at rates up to 2Mb/s are now being defined, and, with the International Telecommunications Union and the European Community taking the lead, rollout is expected to be under way in three years.3 At 2Mb/s, one could download books and articles on demand, clicking on any interesting reference when it occurs. Wireless LAN standards are already at 11Mb/s. If one’s home, business or school had a high-speed connection to the Internet and a wireless LAN, reading material could be retrieved on demand today.

Bundling and form factor options are also improving. The REB and SB are single-function devices, used only for reading. But, could we not package more in the same or a slightly modified device? If you check a student’s backpack, you might find a PDA, CD or MP3 music player, cell phone, books, notebooks, and so forth. In a few years, these applications will all fit in a package the size of the SB with a microphone and speaker or a wireless headset for telephony, music, video, voice annotation, note taking, and control.4 A conventional laptop with a keyboard may also be adaptable to comfortable reading with clever mechanical design. Since I consider reading a "killer app," I would start with a device optimally designed for reading, and add only those functions not detracting from that.

The first p-books were large bibles, chained to tables in monasteries. It took about 50 years to evolve the form factor of the portable p-book and much longer to settle on typography, punctuation, and so forth.5 There are many possible application bundles for e-books, and the winner will evolve as a function of engineering and efficiency, consumer taste, standards, and business considerations.

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Business Considerations

The manufacturers of the SB, the REB, and others are beginning to offer electronic versions of commercial p-books, and their business model seems to be "sell them the razor then sell them the blades." The devices cost $200 (REB) or $600 (SB), and electronic titles cost about the same as the print versions—there is no major savings from the elimination of printing, retail facilities, shipping, or inventory costs. If there are truly savings in production and distribution, competition and market forces will ensure that some are passed on to consumers in the future.

While commercial books and periodicals are important, most of what we read is noncommercial, and the SB and the REB have software that allows users to create their own documents. I tried the program that quickly converted some ASCII and HTML documents to the .reb format. While this is a step in the right direction, it is only a step. Material prepared for one medium can seldom be automatically moved to another. The small REB screen left HTML tables unreadable and, of course, links did not work.

The .reb format will not become a standard. Today, nearly all electronic documents are personal writing or relatively specialized reports and business documents in word processing, HTML, or the Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Adobe plans to revise its Acrobat PDF reader for e-books.6 The new version will include CoolType, its own sub-pixel, font-rendering technology, the ability to reflow text to fit varying screen sizes (while retaining the underlying page structure for printing), and encryption. Adobe also has its Merchant server, which works in conjunction with an enhanced version of Acrobat to provide secure payment for e-books and will support EBX (www.ebxwg. com), a proposed rights-management standard.

Microsoft will soon release Reader (www.microsoft.com/reader), a reading program for laptop and PDAs. Reader will incorporate ClearType and support the Open Ebook format. Open Ebook is a file and format standard based on HTML and XML. It was defined by the Open Book Initiative (www.openEbook.org) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) with the participation of many prominent companies, including Adobe and Microsoft. Users will be able to create Open Ebook documents using Microsoft Word,7 and, like Acrobat, Reader will be freely downloadable. The user interface will be designed for effortless page turning, riffling through pages, annotation, and so forth, and the promise of this software on millions of portables has led major publishers to commit to electronic versions of many p-book titles.8

We are in for an Adobe/Microsoft contest. The proof of the pudding will be seeing and evaluating Reader and the new Acrobat side by side, but there will also be business considerations. Adobe starts with a huge installed base, and Microsoft may be looking over its shoulders at the government, but the financial muscle of Microsoft and the imprimatur of NIST are not to be taken lightly.9

We will also see new publishing models. Authors are invited to self-publish at Fatbrain (www.fatbrain.com/ematter/home.html). Document prices start at $2, and the author receives a 50% royalty. Documents may be in a number of popular formats, there is no charge for posting them, and they may be edited by the author at any time (creating a version control problem for readers). One finds both well-known authors like Arthur C. Clark and unknowns at Fatbrain. The emergence and acceptance of methods for micro-payments like Compaq’s Millicent (www.millicent.com) will enable more twists on this business model because the overhead of a credit card transaction will be eliminated.

NetLibrary (www.netlibrary. com) sells collections of e-books to libraries. For example, the University of Texas has 6,000 books students can browse through for 15 minutes while deciding whether or not to check them out. The business model uses the physical library metaphor in that if an e-book is checked out, it is unavailable to another library patron. As with p-books, the library can purchase multiple copies of popular titles.

Textbooks (which can cost $100 or more) and teaching materials would seem to be a ripe e-book market. There is also an excellent fit with efforts to develop devices to facilitate note taking and automate the capture of the dialogue that takes place in a classroom. For an example of this research, see the Classroom 2000 project at Georgia Tech (www.cc.gatech.edu/fce/c2000/index.html), with its Zen Book reader/note taker.

Of course, most publishing is noncommercial. E-books will be used for the countless business and personal documents we and our organizations create daily, and there are also noncommercial public forums. Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.net/index.html) is the granddaddy of all digital book libraries. It has been growing since 1971, and has nearly 3,000 books. Universities also have important electronic publishing efforts, for example, Brown University (www.stg.brown.edu) and the University of Virginia, (etext.lib.virginia.edu) are pioneers in e-book and library technology as well as collection building.

Scholarly publication has been on weak financial grounds for years since journals contain specialized articles intended for small audiences. Steven Harnad, a pioneer in electronic peer-reviewed journals, expects researchers to become their own e-publishers [3], and, indeed this is happening. For example, the Los Alamos Physics Archive (xxx.lanl.gov) contains over 100,000 self-archived papers. Also see the Open Archives Initiative, (www.openarchives.org). (One can imagine a variation of the Napster music-serving protocol (www.napster.com) for books and other material.)

The e-book has been long promised and slow to deliver, but it may now be ready to emerge. This will depend upon evolving technology and the quality of design and engineering—the technology will have to enable a transparent device and user interface. As always, human and organizational issues will also constrain what we end up with and when we get it. Adoption will be slower than e-book proponents expect, because there are powerful, conservative social and organizational forces holding back change and the adoption of standards. Yet, in the long run, the impact of the e-book may be greater than envisioned. The e-book will be more than a substitute p-book. What will be the social and psychological impacts on the generations of kids who first meet Spot and Sam on e-books in kindergarten?

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    1. Bush, V. As we may think. Atlantic Monthly (July 1945); www.isg.sfu.ca/~duchier/misc/vbush/.

    2. Betrisey, C., et al. Displaced filtering for patterned displays. Society for Information Display, Information Display Research Conference, 2000, forthcoming.

    3. Harnad, S. Free at last: The future of peer-reviewed journals. D-Lib Magazine (Dec. 1999); www.dlib.org/dlib/december99/12harnad.html.

    4. Illich, I. In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh's Didascalicon. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993.

    5. Platt, J.C. Optimal filtering for patterned displays. Microsoft research technical report msr-tr-2000-10; research.microsoft.com/~jplatt/cleartype.

    6. Press, L. Portable computers, past, present, and future. Commun. ACM, 35, 3 (Mar. 1992).

    7. Press, L. Emerging dynabase tools. Commun. ACM 37, 3 (Mar. 1994).

    8. Quan, M. Mutant bacteria, electronic ink and paper under development—Offbeat technologies may hold key to displays, EE Times, Aug. 24, 1998; www.techweb.com/se/directlink.cgi?EET19980824S0058.

    1For comparison, National Geographic is about 5.5" x 8.75", the hardcover book I am reading 4.5" x 8.5", a small paperback 4.5" x 6", and an (old) Palm Pilot PDA 2.25" x 2.25".

    2The signal processing algorithms that compute RGB intensities are derived from a model of human visual physiology and apply to any font and background colors or to an arbitrary image [2, 5].

    3ITU, World Telecommunication Development Report, International Telecommunications Union, Geneva, 1999; www.itu.int/ti/publications/wtdr_99/wtdr99.htm.

    4A headset may be necessary for high-quality speech, noise cancellation, voice recognition, and so forth. That may not seem too stylish today, but styles change. People with ear plugs and portable music players were once a novelty, but they are now taken for granted.

    5See Illich [4] for an accounting of this evolution.

    6Glassbook (www.glassbook.com) has a well-designed reader for the current, fixed-page PDF format.

    7When a document is saved as .lit, it will be marked up as an Open E-book document, then encrypted and compressed for security and storage efficiency.

    8The potential is illustrated by Dataquest's estimate that there are 19.2 million mobile PCs, 4.8 million palm-sized and 2.9 million pad format machines in the U.S. today. They expect these figures to reach 33.8, 12.1, and 9.4 million in 2003.

    9Adobe states it has shipped over 100 million copies of Acrobat PDF reader.

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