Microsoft Agreement Pushes E-Book Standards

Microsoft Agreement Pushes E-Book Standards

By John Makulowich, Senior Writer


Microsoft Corp. officials seized the occasion of the first federally sponsored meeting on electronic books to reveal that the software giant is pushing technical standards for the still evolving industry.

Referred to as eBook by Microsoft but E-Book by organizers of the conference this month in Gaithersburg, Md., electronic books are digital versions of printed books and are displayed on customized reading devices or PCs and laptops.

Sponsored by the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Video Electronic Standards Association, "Electronic Book '98: Turning a New Page in Knowledge Management," attracted nearly 350 attendees, a veritable who's who in the developing field.

A major goal of the Oct. 8-9 conference was to identify issues relating to standards and interoperability for the emerging technology.

But in a quickly convened news conference at the event, Microsoft officials said the company is joining publishing firms, electronics manufacturers and pioneers in the market for electronic books "to establish an important set of open technical standards and help strengthen this emerging industry."

The Microsoft agreement amounts to the willingness of a small number of companies to collaborate on a common set of file specifications. This should let users view a title on any machine conforming to these standards.

Also, it will allow publishers to reach a wider audience since they will not have to reformat their titles for each machine on which they are viewed.

"The goal is to create as many titles as possible and win as many customers as possible as fast as possible," said Dick Brass, vice president for technology development at Microsoft Corp. and the person who leads its electronic book efforts.

Brass said the standard that the group would release in the coming weeks would be used to help develop the next generation of electronic books.

Working with Microsoft are publishers Bertelsmann, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., Microsoft Press, Penguin Putnam Inc., Simon & Schuster and Time-Warner Books; the online book seller barnesandnoble.com; the manufacturer Hitachi Ltd.; Audible Inc., a leading distributor of audiobooks on the World Wide Web; and electronic book firms Everybook Inc., Glassbook Inc., Librius Inc., NuvoMedia Inc. and SoftBook Press Inc.

Microsoft officials said more firms will be joining the standards effort in the near future.

Part of the interest in the electronic book market stems from the potential revenue it could generate for major players.

According to data gathered by the Association of American Publishers, U.S. book sales amounted to more than $21 billion in 1997. That was a 2.4 percent increase over 1996. One firm, Veronis, Suhler, and Associates estimated the potential market for electronic books at $70 billion a year.

Brass stressed that the Microsoft strategy for an open electronic book standard involved moving quickly to create a critical mass of titles and readers.

He said the key questions are: how fast can the industry turn this into reality, and how to convince hardware manufacturers to come on board with products.

Brass told the attendees to expect a firm specification from the Microsoft-led standards group by the first quarter of 1999.

According to Brass, the specification for eBook file and format structure is based on the HTML and XML languages used to format Web documents.

The specification will be free when it is released. It will allow many different types of electronic book devices to be compatible.

Such devices would include standard PCs and laptops and specialized reading appliances which are just now starting to come on the market.

The Microsoft announcement on the standards group fit well with the theme set in the keynote address delivered by Ray Kammer, director of NIST.

Kammer alerted attendees to the downside of failing to come to consensus on standards.

"Right now, [the International Organization for Standardization] and [the International Electrotechnical Commission] consider themselves to be the nearly exclusive guardians for international standards. In too many instances and in too many ways, U.S. firms are losing ground in the increasingly market-critical world of standards," said Kammer.

He warned: "If you don't act soon, U.S. electronic book developers could find themselves in the difficult position of having great technology that is blocked from overseas markets. That could be the case, especially if there are no consensus standards for electronic publishing formats, security and retrieval."

"Standards are more and more important for this industry," said Victor McCrary, symposium organizer and technical manager of the Information Storage and Interconnect Systems Team in the Information Technology Laboratory at NIST.

McCrary holds provisional patents on particular aspects of electronic books and heads up an electronic book test bed project named Janus that was started in January 1997.

"There are a range of features to consider for E-Books that will need to be compatible on different systems and platforms," McCrary said. "For example, font resolution, annotation, voice activation and dictionary lookup."

Such features would include the ability:

- to change the size of the viewable text.

- to add personal comments to specific fields.

- to activate the device by using your voice.

- to look up words by pressing the screen with your finger or other pointing device.

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