Microsoft targets electronic books

It's not enough that Microsoft dominates PC software. The giant has also put its finger into many other pies, among them WebTV, e-commerce, and online travel reservations. Now, Microsoft has announced it is working to establish an open technical standard for electronic books. eBooks, as they're called, are digital versions of printed books that can be displayed and stored on dedicated reading devices or on PCs.

It's not enough that Microsoft dominates PC software. The giant has also put its finger into many other pies, among them WebTV, e-commerce, and online travel reservations. And now comes the latest -- electronic books.

Now, Microsoft has announced it is working to establish an open technical standard for electronic books. eBooks, as they're called, are digital versions of printed books that can be displayed and stored on dedicated reading devices or on PCs.

In an announcement, Microsoft said it was collaborating with eBook publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster, and Time-Warner Books, and with the manufacturers of dedicated eBook devices, to establish the open standard.

The standard specification is designed to ensure that any electronic book can be read on any eBook device or PC. The structure is based on the same HTML and XML languages used to format Web sites. The standard will be free of charge to hardware and content developers, according to Microsoft.

EBooks are just becoming available, and the standard will ensure that early adopters of the technology won't be penalised with later incompatibilities, said Dick Brass, vice president for technology development at Microsoft.

Initially, eBooks will be primarily of interest to corporations because of the steep hardware costs (anywhere from $US300 to $1,500 for a dedicated reading device), says Chris Shipley, editor of DemoLetter, a newsletter for technology developers. Companies can give eBooks and lightweight reading devices to employees in the field, making it easy to travel with corporate documents containing thousands of pages of information.

Widespread consumer acceptance, Shipley added, may not occur for several years. "Most consumers won't be interested until the hardware costs under $100," she said.

At least three eBook devices are expected to be available in the near future. SoftBook Press plans to sell its SoftBook for $299 beginning this month at its Web site. NuvoMedia will launch its Rocket eBook by the end of the year, sold exclusively through the Levenger catalog, for about $500. And EveryBook's EB Dedicated Reader, with professional models going for up to $1,500, will be available early next year.

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