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Interview: Is there a future for e-books?

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent   |   Aug. 26, 2002 at 12:52 PM

A former academic and employee of electronics maker Fujitsu Inc., Glenn Sanders shared his thoughts on on-line publishing with United Press International. Following are excerpts from the dialogue:

Q. Why electronic publishing?

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A. In the late 1990s, I saw the confluence of three factors that foretold the electronic publishing and e-book revolution. The first was the imminent ubiquity of the Internet. Next, was the growing need for mobile access to information, and the availability of so much data in the digital domain. The company where I work, Rolltronics Corporation, is developing thin, flexible electronics technology that will enable many of these devices in the future. While living in Japan and working at Fujitsu, Inc., I founded eBookNet and began toying with the design of a next-generation information display device. In 1998, I founded eBookNet.com, which became a renowned Web site that provided news and community services for the e-book and e-publishing industry for several years.

I see myself as an e-book evangelist, seeking to inform and educate the world about electronic publishing. My vision is of a world where information, entertainment, and books are readily available to professionals, researchers, students, and readers everywhere. So, even though I work full time for Rolltronics doing business development, I continue my daily efforts to help build the e-Book industry through eBookWeb.org.

Q. This has been a bad year for e-publishing. Leading brands vanished, industry leaders retreated, technology gurus bemoaned yet another missed prognosis -- that e-books will dethrone print books. What went wrong?

A. Ever since I first realized the need for portable information devices, my belief in the future of e-books has never been shaken. Despite the fact that e-book reality replaced hype in 2000, and 2001 brought a temporary cyclical economic downturn, I firmly believe and know that e-books and e-publishing, or more generally portable information devices, will play a primary role in the way that people write, create, design, read, learn, access news and information, communicate, interact, travel, enjoy art and entertainment, and experience their world.

Q. Questions of device compatibility and standards have plagued the industry from its inception. Will we end up with an oligopoly of 2-3 formats and 2-3 corresponding readers, or do you have a different take on the industry's future?

A. We may be destined to have several formats and platforms, each of which is used for certain applications and types of content. The reason is that there are basically four major players, each with their own plan to dominate the e-Publishing market.

Despite the fact that, in my opinion, Adobe's PDF is lacking as an e-Book format, there are hundreds of millions of documents in PDF in publishing companies, governments, corporations, and schools. These will not be replaced instantly, even if a unified format were agreed upon.

Then there is Microsoft, the 800-pound gorilla, who is slowly and silently insinuating their reading platform into their software and Windows operating system. The interoperability of MS Reader software with MS Office products will make it possible for many millions of documents to be converted to MS Reader format. Of course, there will need to be a portable device to display all those e-documents.

Q. Traditional print publishers treat e-books (the content, not the devices) as electronic facsimiles of the print editions. Can e-books offer a different reading experience? In what way are they different to print books?

A. E-books that are nothing more than electronic copies of the print version offer only portability and access as advantages. Of course e-books can be searched and annotated. The vision impaired can read with large fonts. Students can look up words in a built-in dictionary.

Publishers could include the author's notes, rough sketches, background, audio or video from the author or the scene of the books. Reference works should be electronically updateable via the Internet. Book club members might be able to send each other their annotations and comments. Readers might send feedback to the author and/or publisher. Fans might write and distribute alternate endings, or add characters or scenes.

Q. E-publishing is at the nexus of sea changes in copyright laws. Does e-publishing encourage piracy? Have publishers gone overboard in an effort to preserve their intellectual property rights?

A. E-publishing does not encourage piracy, but being in electronic format, it certainly becomes susceptible to the same kind of piracy that all other kinds of e-content experience. A number of models, or rather experiments, are being tried with respect to the level of control of intellectual property and the associated financial model. So far, there has not been a clear answer as to which experiment yields the best results.

One factor is that the market is still in its infancy and therefore is in a state of flux. The continuum runs from strict and limited control offered by digital rights management systems, to free e-content (hopefully) supported by either stimulating sales of print books, or advertisements. In the middle are publishers who provide limited security, or those who use no security and depend on the basic honesty of most people. As the market grows, we will discover which models work best in which situations for which types of content.

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