Thursday, July 19, 2007

My museum of content related artefacts (5)

1997: RocketBook

Another treasured item in my collection is the Rocket eBook. It is an EB-500, a factory reconditioned copy. It was designed by NuovoMedia Inc, manufactured in Taiwan, and distributed by Franklin worldwide. I knew Franklin from the handheld translators. Appareantly they saw some future in electronic books in the second wave of electronic books.

The first had past with the mini-disc based Sony Electronic Books, which will be treated later on. The second wave arrived late 1996. Internet was spreading fast in the US and Europe. And the network was seen as a perfect distribution and payment network for electronic books; in fact it was used already for this purpose by Peanut Press which distributed e-Books for Palm PDAs. But the problem with Palm was its own closed operating system. So in competition e-readers were developed, which worked with Microsoft software. The Rocket eBook was one of the early ones. You could see it as an extension to the PC just like you had floppy disc players and external harddiscs. So you could download an e-Book on your harddisc and transfer it to your e-Book.

The e-reader had a cradle in which you could put the e-reader when not in use and charge the internal battery. The e-reader had a stylus for the touchscreen and the screen was backlit. You could load up a number of books. This was not a major breakthrough as books do not take too much storage, as long as they are text-oriented; for example the text of a 25 volume general encyclopedia is less than 70Mb.

Was it a pleasure to read an electronic book on the Rocket eBook? No, not really. The e-reader was heavy due to the internal battery; I guess 450 grams. The screen was backlit. Besides you could not really read it outside in sunlight. And battery life was short; too short to read a full novel of 300 pages. Besides the books were mostly in a proprietary format so that it had to be loaded on a particular reader and an exchange of books was impossible.

This second wave fought a battle on two fronts: multi-functionality and proprietary software. Electronic book readers have been in trouble from the beginning: was it only a reader for books or a multi-functional electronic gadget like a PDA, on which you held your address list and calendar as well as books. Peanut Press followed this strategy from the beginning. But the equipment manufacturers of the second wave e-reader made a choice for single functionality. The system integrators developed proprietary software to format the e-Books. This presented a problem to the publishers, who preferred open software so that they could distribute it to any machine. It was in 1998 that the Open e-Book association was founded, in which amongst others Microsoft participated. The idea was to present a format for all. It looked like the same problem as CD-ROM had when it started out, but which was solved with the High Sierra standard, followed by the ISO 9660 standard.

Was the second wave of e-books a success? It was more of a success than the first wave, which was not a success at all, except for Japan. Publishers started to believe in it as well as distributors in the beginning. But the movement was not convincing enough, as publishers discontinued their freshly formed departments and distributors discontinued their assortment. E-Books became a specialist’s item with e-book integrators having special knowledge of the Open e-Book standard and other formats like Mobipocket format. The second wave did yield many electronic books. Mobipocket for example has 49.000 books available in their format. Worldwide some half a million books should be available this summer, copyrighted and most of them non-copyrighted; but the share of copyrighted e-books is growing.

The Rocket e-Book is still working. But I only use it for demonstrations, as I can only load proprietarily formatted books and documents. The bookshelf contains the Random House Dictionary, a user guide and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Blog Posting Number 817

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