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People like to do it in bed and it really thrills some people to turn the lights off while doing it. Doing it on an airplane during long flights is also popular. I'm talking about reading books and newspapers using new, lightweight, high-definition, backlit tablets. Using the Internet as a distribution medium for digital versions of books is an idea that seems to be gaining acceptance among publishers and consumers alike. Recent mass media attention and the huge consumer interest in Stephen King's short story Riding the Bullet, published as an ebook - a book that could only be read on PCs, PDAs or ebook devices - is a sign that the world might be ready for digital books. The furore over the title pushed Stephen King onto The Lycos top 50 List for the first time ever. Apparently, 400,000 Internet users downloaded the book in the first 24 hours. The enthusiasm of reviewers (buyers' reviews, that is) at Amazon.com and insider information-sharing among users of ebook devices in online forums is reminiscent of the early days of of Compuserve and newsgroups on the Internet. There is even a corporate application for the ebook: Fatbrain.com's Information Exchange and Print on Demand service. Today, the ebook device market is dominated by US vendors NuvoMedia and Softbook Press, both recently acquired by Gemstar International Group, a company whose claim to fame is making it easier for TV viewers to program their VCRs. Thomson, the consumer electronics giant, just agreed a contract with Gemstar to produce the hardware devices in volume starting this year. "We noticed a change in publishers' attitudes between the 1998 and 1999 Frankfurt Book Fairs, from contempt to desire," says Gerd Ribbek, spokesperson for NuvoMedia in Hamburg. That change in attitude had a lot to do with the realisation that e-commerce is real and that the Internet is a distribution channel and not necessarily the nail in the coffin of the publishers of this world. The cost saving potential of ebook publishing is also convincing. "Benefits to publishers show up when you think that more than 40 per cents of their costs are paper, printing, distribution, costs virtually non-existent in the ebook world," says Faten Bizzari, an analyst at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in London, who has researched the ebook market. In Germany, the Financial Times Deutschland is available for free to ebook device owners, but these individuals number only in the "hundreds", according to Ribbek. The ebook is officially not available in Germany until June. German speakers are downloading German 'skins' for the user interface of US-sourced devices. At least eight other vendors will start to market ebook devices this year, including French startup Cytale and Swiss startup Monec. "Several players might argue that the need for a dedicated reading device is already dead. It could be that improving Palm Pilots are all you need. There may be a huge market for ebooks (already witnessed in the encyclopaedia world) but whether it follows that the market exists for the dedicated devices is not so certain," says Bizzari. Software and ebook standards have been developed by Open eBook Forum, which is supported by more than 200 companies, including Microsoft. Without standards, digital-only publishers such as France's Zero Hour (whose company writes its name like this: 00h00.com) have had to make titles available in a range of formats, including PDF, Palm Pilot, Rocket eBook and MS Reader. The MS vision for ebooks, while popular with ebook fans and ebook industry players, is not too popular with publishers, according to Geoff Ebbs, an Australian journalist specializing on ebooks. "In contrast to Adobe, Microsoft does not have a warm and fuzzy relationship with the design and publishing community," he writes in a recent column. Nevertheless, in the past six months, MS has managed to co-opt support of its MS Reader software from the major publishers including Havas in France and Mondadori in Italy. In France, this year's Salon du Livre in Paris marked the debut of ebooks in that country. Adobe (Palm Computing recently announced support of Adobe's PDF) and Zero Hour sponsored a special ebook exhibition. "I think the increased interest has a lot to do with the Year 2000. People realise that even books will change," says Zero Hour's Marjorie Marlein. ® Related Story Stephen King publishes novella on Net only

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