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Making E-Books Easier on the Eyes

Computers: Microsoft and Adobe seek to make electronic displays look more like the printed page. The developments could boost the niche reading market--and benefit screen users in general.


STARTUP, Wash. — On a cloudy spring afternoon two years ago, Bill Hill was tracking an elk near a bend in the Skykomish River, about an hour northeast of Seattle. Crawling along the sandy banks on his hands and knees, he struggled to make out a hoof print in the light brown dirt.

"I was forced to do this interpretation of the print and it was slowing me down and requiring lots of effort," said the burly 51-year-old Scotsman, a researcher at Microsoft Corp. "I instantly realized that's what is going on with the computer screen."

Preventing eye strain and throbbing headaches caused by toiling too long in front of a computer screen is Hill's obsession. Hill found similarities between the two missions, ones that could help alleviate the suffering of millions of computer users.

The result of this improbable convergence of nature and technology is a new display technology invented by Microsoft called ClearType. It is designed to make the computer screen look like a page in a book, with letters having the same clarity and resolution as they do on paper. Microsoft is seeking several U.S. patents for the technology.

The software giant is not the only company entering this market. Adobe Systems Inc. is positioning its Acrobat software for on-screen reading, recently announcing it has improved display resolution with a technology it calls CoolType.

Microsoft's innovation, coupled with its deep pockets, could help turn the floundering e-book industry into a growing and profitable enterprise, industry executives believe. Momentum in the e-book industry has been building slowly over the last two years. More than 70 technology companies, publishing houses and other organizations recently signed the Open eBook standard that creates a universal software format for all e-books.

"For the first time, we have the confluence of technology and content that can make e-books into a marketing success," said Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman of Time-Warner Trade Publishing. "I'd say over the next five years, e-books are going to carve out a significant niche in the market."

Such statements have been made before, but the technology has never measured up to the hype. Industry analysts, who agree that the e-book market is growing, remain skeptical about its chances to reach a mainstream audience.

So far, the only two U.S. makers of e-book reading devices--Nuvo Media and SoftBook Press--have sold just 20,000 copies of their respective Rocket eBooks or SoftBooks.

In five years, New York-based research firm Jupiter Communications predicts, the numbers will increase to about 6.5 million e-book reading devices, creating potential download revenue of about $127 million, said Seamus McAteer, director of Internet strategy for Jupiter.

"There is an addressable market here," McAteer said, "but it will take a while."

For the e-book industry to be viable, companies still must develop longer-lasting batteries, resolve publishers' concerns about protecting intellectual property, digitize the content and design better dedicated electronic reading devices, said Victor Votsch, research director for GartnerGroup.

"It's a good thing that Microsoft is behind the latest effort because it can afford to lose money," Votsch said. "It's going to be a long haul to get profitable products."

Indeed, even the company's competitors say that the ClearType technology is a significant breakthrough that could re-energize the industry as it attempts to widen its appeal.

"The ClearType technology represents one of the primary keys that will allow our industry to unlock the door to making eBooks real and readable," said Martin Eberhard, chief executive of Mountain View, Calif.-based Nuvo Media.

On paper, readers instantly recognize the shapes of words subconsciously because of the high resolution, the typography and the spacing of characters.

"But because of the low resolution and poor spacing on the computer screen, we're not instantly recognizing the word," Hill said. "We're looking at a shape and we have to analyze or process it before we then recognize the shape and read meaning into it."

Hill's insight into the psychology of reading and how people recognize patterns was instrumental in reshaping the debate at Microsoft over how to improve on-screen reading, company officials say. Armed with Hill's new knowledge, co-workers Bert Keely and Greg Hitchcock then devised a way to manipulate the pixels on the display screens with a new set of algorithms that Hitchcock wrote into the software code. A pixel--short for picture element--is a little square that can be seen when a graphics image is enlarged. The more pixels in an image, the better its resolution.

By dividing the pixels into even smaller units, the researchers improved font display resolutions by as much as 300%.

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