In a move that seems straight from the pages of science fiction, three companies are set to unveil electronic books this fall. Each promises to hold hundreds of volumes of searchable text in a portable shell weighing only a few pounds–and at least one of the companies has set its sights on K-12 education as a prime market.

NuvoMedia Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif., this fall will launch the RocketBook, a 20-ounce device about the size of a paperback novel, complete with a stylus for highlighting and annotating text. Also this fall, SoftBook Press Inc., of Menlo Park, Calif., will debut the SoftBook, a three-pound device that can hold up to 100,000 pages of text.

And in January, Middletown, Pa.-based Everybook Inc. will unveil the EB Dedicated Reader, a four-pound device about the size of a sheet of paper that will duplicate a book’s layout, including text and graphics, when opened.

All three devices will let you download or update text from the internet almost instantly, though the RocketBook, with the smallest capacity of the three, must download text via a PC first. All three will let you annotate text, search for information, or change the type size as well.

Dedicated Reader

Dan Munyan, president of Everybook, told eSchool News his company already has worked out a deal with McGraw-Hill and several other education publishers to make their content available through the EB Dedicated Reader.

“We expect that K-12 administrators will see the product first, as a tool to evaluate publishers’ textbooks for use in the classroom,” Munyan said. “Eventually–maybe as early as 2000–it could be ready for students as well.”

The current version of Dedicated Reader–which will sell for about $1,500–is too costly and too fragile for student use in K-12 education, Munyan said, but Everybook plans to have a lighter, more durable version costing about $500 within a few years.

Publishers are quick to embrace the Dedicated Reader, Munyan said, because it uses PDF files, which are essentially photographs of the printed page and make a publisher’s entire archives available without having to reformat the text.

“We see this as more than just an experiment,” Ted Nardin, group vice president for professional publishing at McGraw-Hill in New York, told the Associated Press. “Someday, this is going to be widely accepted.”

Superintendents, curriculum administrators, and school board members soon could be given the devices as a cost-effective way for textbook publishers to showcase their content, Munyan said. Publishers instantly could offer copies of their newest releases to administrators, while saving themselves in the long run on printing costs. The device also uses encryption technology, making it very difficult to copy and redistribute the electronic text.

Eventually, Munyan said, schools could offer entire curriculums to their students via electronic books. Publishers easily could update their texts to include information about current events, and schools would save up to 30 percent on each new text–roughly what it costs to print a textbook, making it easier for schools to retire outdated materials.

Such a model for learning has been discussed in the past using laptop computers as the instruments, but objections invariably have been raised about the comfort level (or rather, lack thereof) of reading text from a computer screen. The Dedicated Reader replicates the reading experience much more closely than a laptop does, Munyan said.

For starters, it’s hinged to open like a book, with a 9 inch by 11 inch touch-sensitive screen through which all commands are executed. The reader sees the text exactly the way it’s formatted by a textbook publisher, in a two-page spread format. To turn the page, you simply touch the bottom corner of the right-hand page; to flip back, you touch the bottom corner of the left page.

An index is available by touching the top center of the right-hand page, and a table of contents by touching the top center of the left. Touching any numerical reference or title in the table of contents brings you right to that page, and touching part of the text highlights it for future study.

Touching any one of the inside corners tells the EB Dedicated Reader to capture the page and offload it, via infrared transmission, to any printer, PC, copier, or fax machine with a standard infrared receiving device, Munyan said. Publishers will determine which pages print and which do not according to their copyright and licensing arrangement with authors and archives, he said.

Other models

NuvoMedia’s RocketBook differs from the other two devices mainly in its size and its technology, the company said. Weighing in at just over a pound, the RocketBook is the size of a paperback novel and can fit into a briefcase, jacket pocket, or purse. The device also features an extended battery life of 17 hours, a stylus for highlighting and annotating text, and a high-contrast, high-resolution screen with backlighting that can be turned on or off for easy reading under any lighting conditions.

With its portability and its high-contrast screen, the RocketBook seems a natural fit for airplane rides or excursions to the beach. Indeed, Chris Kahn, a spokesman for NuvoMedia, said the RocketBook is intended primarily for the consumer market at first, but NuvoMedia is looking into the possibilities of the K-12 market as well.

“We don’t want to jump into that market until we’re ready, until all our ducks are in a row,” Kahn said. But once NuvoMedia has established connections with several educational publishers, Kahn said, “our product is going to find a number of useful applications in the K-12 environment.”

The RocketBook’s price hasn’t been set yet, but Kahn said the unit will sell for “under $500.”

The SoftBook incorporates a built-in 33.6 kbps modem that automatically connects to the company’s network simply by plugging into a standard phone jack, the company said, allowing users to download text at a rate of 100 pages per minute. Other features include a backlit display and a rechargeable lithium ion battery pack that provides up to five hours of viewing with a one-hour recharge.

Tom Pomeroy, chief publishing officer and co-founder of SoftBook Press, said the SoftBook initially will target “information professionals” when it ships this fall–but the K-12 market is not too far off for his company, either.

“The good news is that, at three pounds, the SoftBook weighs a lot less than the 20 pounds of books in most students’ backpacks,” Pomeroy said. “But we’ll have to make it bulletproof before we introduce it into schools–SoftBooks don’t really bounce well.”

SoftBook is negotiating with major education publishers now to determine how best to deliver their content, Pomeroy said.

The device will be sold commercially for $299, plus a monthly subscription fee of $9.95 that includes unlimited access to the company’s online store of texts. But Pomeroy said it was unclear whether that pricing model would apply to schools, which are “probably a year off” from being included in the SoftBook’s market, he said.

Like Munyan, Pomeroy cited convenience as a chief reason electronic books may be ideal for the K-12 market: “The beauty of electronic publishing is that educators can choose from any text they want–and it’s all current.”

NuvoMedia Inc.

SoftBook Press Inc.

Everybook Inc.