The Reading World

Circa 1994: Making Book On PDAs

Another historical perspective on e-books, this from the August 8, 1994 edition of Digital Media: A Seybold Report. I’d published my first interactive book, in Voyager’s Expanded Book format, about a year earlier.

A market in hand for electronic publishers?

With so many industries focused on getting the interactivity into televisions and PCs, there’s not much interest anymore in delivering digitized information to handheld computers. Excitement has shifted from John Sculley’s prognostications about a $3 trillion market portended by the introduction of Newton to the similarly warm, fuzzy fantasies of the information superhighway. Nevertheless, there’s a world’s history worth of data that could find a very lucrative marketing on handheld devices—at bargain prices compared to the cost of interactive television programming.

Sooner or later, the bad feelings engendered by the poor reception for handheld computers, especially in the press, will pass. As handheld devices take off, someone’s going to cash in on the publishing opportunity in carry-along digital data. It’s tough to take a digital book along on the commuter train or into the park. A desktop PC or Mac’s got about five feet of leeway before it loses its connection to a power outlet, and portables don’t make good company during a quiet moment, or even a noisy one when a single bit of information is needed.

Unfulfilled promise

From the start, personal digital assistants (PDAs) have delivered more promise than palpable benefits. But the potential locked up in the Newton, General Magic’s Magic Cap and Microsoft’s upcoming WinPad operating system is immense. They tear off a large part of the functionality in a computer and fold it into the pocket. If used intelligently by publishers, handheld formats can enhance the experience of information.

Everyone’s familiar with the trail of tears traveled during the past two years by Apple’s Newton, AT&T’s foster child, the EO Personal Communicator, and the Tandy/Casio Zoomer. PDAs were pummeled by Time, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, with negative adjectives piling up faster than sales receipts.

Sales of Newton, which started out briskly, have slowed in recent months. Despite that, the average consumer electronics company would jump for joy over Newton’s numbers. About 100,000 units have sold through dealers. Tens of thousands more Newtons have been shipped direct from Apple to corporate buyers. EO took the big dirt nap after wracking up sales of only 9,000 units in a year. The Zoomer, which runs the GeoWorks operating system that will be shipped in several new handhelds in coming months, has earned about 40,000 users, according to the most optimistic reports.

Developing titles for this market is an unattractive prospect in almost anyone’s book. It’s tiny and fragmented. All told, there’s less than 2000,000 handheld devices out there using four incompatible operating systems. But that is today.

We expect a small but significant explosion in handheld sales

The Reading World

Circa 1994: Electronic Books—Eight Years and Going Strong?

This is a sidebar I published in Digital Media: A Seybold Report in August 1994 about where the electronic publishing market had come in its short life and where it might be going. You’ll see we’ve come a long way and, in many ways, hardly progressed at all since the mid-Nineties. — M.R.

More than six million “copies” of Franklin Electronic Publishers Inc.’s electronic books have move through the consumer channels. Franklin issued its first title, a dictionary, as an embedded document in a small inexpensive handheld  device in 1986. Franklin’s books have never come in the prettiest covers, they are made to fit a niche at the lowest possible price.

“If you look at what has transpired ofer the last three years,” same Michael Strange, executive vice president of Franklin, “we were the only company that focused on the content, not the technology.” Indeed, Franklin has positioned itself as a publisher rather than a computer company. Despite the fact that it has introduced several significant storage capabilities to the mass market, Franklin has found it’s better to talk about what in its high-capacity memory modules—from Bibles to extensive dictionaries of foreign phrases—than the modules themselves.

The company’s handhelds have followed a pedestrian design philosophy that combines a keyboard with a low-resolution one-, three- and 10-line LCD screen that displays only text. In the past couple of years, Franklin has added audio and communications capabilities to its devices. For example, it’s now possible to download data from a PC to a Franklin electronic book device or make a Franklin dictionary speak in Stephen Hawking’s digital voice.

More than 50 Franklin titles are available today. The company’s content includes several versions of The Bible, the Concise Columbia Dictionary, a series of “Language Master” translators, and, a complete statistical record of Major League Baseball pitching and hitting. Prices range from about $40 for spelling assistants to $350 for translators with speech synthesis features.

A hit title generates sales of 100,000 to several hundred thousand units, according to Strange. “We are truly following more of a paradigm of a publisher with a back list and a main list,” he said. This allows Franklin to sustain less popular titles, which sell between 40,000 and 60,000 copies.

By and large, Franklin’s success was built on two markets: Business and