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Now Available in PaperHack
A Quick Intro to eBooks, Part I

As someone who literally treasures books, I found my book-snobbish friends were appalled at my early fascination with the concept of eBooks. Anyone with the tiniest bit of common sense knows that there's no replacement for an actual book: the feel of the pages, the smell of paper itself, a nice binding, or the ability to crack the cheap paperback edge to assure your place while you read; but if you ponder the possibilities for eBooks, especially when it comes to education, periodicals, or the conservation of rapidly dwindling forests, well, frankly I'm a little disappointed (though not surprised) at the turns eBook development has taken. As is often the case with potentially exciting new technologies, small innovative companies were quickly acquired by the big players, functionality took a back seat to copy protection, and real innovation became stifled by a couple of large companies molding a platform to suit their marketing and hardware needs. We think there's still hope though, and we'll be sharing some thoughts in future pieces, but we thought we'd begin with the currently pervasive formats and their associated software. In part two, we'll review some hardware, and in part three, we'll touch on more recent developments and projected applications for the various eBook formats.

Common Formats

The field of eBook options has narrowed considerably since the initial round of competing ebook formats and readers. As is often the case, the biggies won, and the main viable platforms are Adobe's Acrobat eBook Reader and Microsoft Reader. We downloaded both. As is typical of Adobe, you had to fill out a lengthy registration form before downloading. We had a little trouble getting the download to commence (using IE5.5 on Windows 98), but once we did, the 9MB (egad, that's almost as big as Real Player!), only took a couple minutes over DSL. Next we went to the Microsoft Reader download page. Strangely, no registration was required, and it was only a 3.7MB download. Microsoft, how can you retain your bloatware crown with tiny downloads like this? Perhaps you could add some annoying but hack-able encryption...

Thank God (SBC?) For DSL....

After downloading the readers, we installed the Adobe software first. Minor gripes: irrationally long EULA, required reboot, and an unsolicited desktop icon. All easily dispensed with. We decided to install both applications before launching either. The MS Reader install was a lot less simple. The installer crashed ZoneAlarm twice in a row, so we disabled the application. On the third try, although we were politely asked if we wanted a desktop icon, we got one of those "Activate Now?" RECOMMENDED! screens, so we played along. Then we were asked once again if we trust Microsoft, and even though we didn't hesitate, we experienced the MOAF (Mother of all Freezes). That's it! Sign us up for one of those "Switch" commercials! We "three-finger-saluted" (even Norton CrashGuard was crashed) until our pinkies were distended, and once re-booted, we re-launched the software, just to see what would happen. Well, not much. A simple interface, as you can see. But is it GOOD simple, or BAD simple? A little of both, in our opinion. See the side-by-side below. At least it didn't crash. The Adobe launched without much trouble (it should, it's essentially reading pdf's, from what we understand), and, in our opinion, offers a more intuitive and useful interface than Microsoft's reader. (Thank you, GlassBook developers...)

The Adobe eBook Reader has a slightly more purposeful (and attractive?) "front page"
The Microsoft Reader is simple, but maybe too simple. We wouldn't mind more "view" options

So what about content? You have to go buy some, or risk incarceration by finding a working copy of some not-necessarily legal decryption tools. There are also a lot of educational resources available for FREE books. We downloaded "Jungle Book" in MS Reader format from the University of Virginia Library, and "Call of the Wild" from, just to see how the two applications feel. Not surprisingly, the Adobe software was a little easier to use, and had some useful basics like page orientation (two-page display, for instance) and dictionary tools, and although slow-launching it seemed a bit more stable on our system. We say "not surprisingly" not because we like Adobe, but because their product is essentially the original GlassBook Reader, which was well conceived for the purpose at hand. We think it would be nice if the MS Reader had more "View" options. Both applications seem to (we'll be verifying this) create new directories in "My Documents" by default, and allow drag-and-drop of files into their respective "Libraries". Neither application does a particularly good job of documenting where they're actually putting your eBook files- more on that in part two.

The Adobe software in "Two-Page" mode

So why would I read a book on my computer?

That's a question very much on our minds as we sat looking at a 273-page document on our 19" Trinitron. The answer is, it would be a little awkward (though nice and warm) snuggling up with a big Dell-branded Sony monitor to read yourself to sleep. Even a laptop, in many instances, may be a little cumbersome for simply reading a book. In our next piece, we'll be covering available hardware for reading your eBooks, and grumbling a little bit about how the interests of very large companies may once again be impeding the development of a potentially awesome new idea.

Happy downloads (if you dare).

Ian Gray
August 22, 2002


Related Links

Planet eBook
Index of ElcomSoft, Dmitry Sklyarov, Adobe, US Government and DMCA-related articles from around the Web
Topics such as digital formats, content standards, online protection systems, reading software and content management

Advanced eBook Processor - Truth and Myths (and Download)

Microsoft Reader

Adobe eBook Reader



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