Let's face it, if the printed book had just been invented, it would probably get three stars out of five in reviews from the computer magazines. A review of Paper Book 1.0 might conclude with the following summary:

"Pros: Lightweight, portable, inexpensive, high resolution, practically unbreakable, available in multiple languages, easily annotated with write-only stylus, requires no batteries. Can be read while sitting in the smallest room of the house.""Cons: Pages are static rather than dynamic (they cannot be updated once printed); fonts and type sizes are fixed; lack of backlighting makes it difficult to read at night without an external light source; topic selection is limited; paper is inefficient, bulky and subject to mildew and yellowing; paper production is environmentally unfriendly, and content is vulnerable to rampant copyright violations."

"In subsequent versions," the electronic reviewers might write, "we would like to see the Paper Book add interactivity, hy-per-link-ing, a built-in dictionary, animated illustrations, online connections to content repositories, encryption to protect the publisher's copyright and other features we take for granted in electronic books."

Printed books have been popular for five centuries, of course, and have enjoyed great success despite the aforementioned shortcomings. But that hasn't stopped recent generations of science fiction authors, futurists, entrepreneurs and even politicians from fantasizing about electronic and digital books.

Speaker Newt Gingrich told an audience last month that replacing printed textbooks with computers should be a goal of the federal government. "I would hope within five years they would have no more textbooks," Gingrich said. In Texas, the chairman of the State Board of Education has proposed spending billions of dollars in coming years to replace printed books with laptop computers and electronic books.

"Like a comet on some weird, loopy orbit, this idea comes around every 10 years or so," said Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future, a research group based in Menlo Park, Calif. "Each time we get a closer approximation."

This time around, at least three digital approximations of books are scheduled to be introduced, beginning in the fall. You would casually entrust none of them to a fifth grader and would not, for that matter, take any of them to the beach in a bag filled with sand and tanning lotion. All are essentially portable computers with touch-activated screens and special modifications for retrieving, storing and displaying digital versions of printed material.

The first scheduled to arrive is the midsize Softbook, a sleek tablet with a supple leather cover. The Softbook weighs about three pounds and has a screen not quite big enough to display a single page of a hardcover book.

The Softbook is expected to cost $299 when it goes on sale in September, but the buyer will also be required to pay a monthly subscription fee of $9.95 for a package of services that will include local telephone access to the Softbook Press library and a bundle of public domain and special publications.

Additional fees will be charged for downloading copyrighted books and publications. A $19.95 monthly plan for more active readers will also be available.

To load the Softbook with "content," as writing is known these days, the user will simply plug any standard phone line into the Softbook's built-in modem port and tap a connection icon on the screen, and the Softbook will do the rest. No desktop computer will be needed.

Sometime before the end of the year, the Rocketbook will be on the market. The smallest of the three electronic books, the Rocketbook can be easily held in one hand; it weighs about half as much as the Softbook (the Rocketbook's designer also designed the Palm Pilot).

Nuvomedia, the Rocketbook's creator, has financial backing from the investment arm of the global publishing giant Bertelsmann AG and from Barnes and Noble. Both companies apparently see a potential cost advantage in not having to print, ship, stock and store paper-based books.

No subscription fee will be required for the Rocketbook, but the device will cost about $500 when it reaches the market, about the time when winter weather sets in and people are thinking of curling up in front of a fireplace with a good book.

Unlike the Softbook, the Rocketbook will have to be inserted into a special "cradle" connected to an personal computer with Internet access. The user will shop at any online bookstore, but the book ordered will not be sent by mail; the words will stream into the Rocketbook instead.

Both the Softbook and Rocketbook companies contend that they have struck agreements with almost all of the world's great book publishing and information companies and that current best-sellers as well as specialized publications will be available when they open for business.

The only one of the three new models that actually resembles a book is the EB Dedicated Reader, which is being developed by Everybook Inc. of Middletown, Pa. Now in the prototype stage, the Reader is not expected to reach the market until next year.

When it does arrive, it is expected to cost $1,400 to $1,600, a rich vessel indeed for bodice-ripping romance novels but perhaps reasonable for a twin-screened book that can display two full-size, facing pages at once, in the exact format of the printed-on-paper version, with color and the ability to show engineering diagrams and mathematical formulas.

"A single-screen device is not a book - it's a tablet," said the Reader's inventor, Dan Munyan, who says that his product will be the first true electronic book. "The last person to read and enjoy a tablet was Moses."

Unlike the two other contenders, the Reader is designed to use the Portable Document Format (.pdf) files that recreate a paper document's layout and type styles on any computer screen. Munyan said he expected the Reader to appeal mainly to customers on the high end of the professional reference-book market, those who spend a thousand or more tax-deductible dollars on reference works a year.

Even the inventors of these first models stress that they are not intended to replace the paperback novel. "You can't beat paperbacks," Munyan said. "Paperback books are too cheap." Instead, all are trying to win customers among professionals like doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers and others who need to keep reading updated journals and reference works.

Yes, there will be room in the digital book's memory for a guilty pleasure or two - the smallest digital book can hold the equivalent of 10 trashy novels - but realistically, the economics of it will make sense mainly for getting instant access to professional texts.

A digital book would have some undeniable advantages. Students would not be bent under bulging backpacks filled with heavy textbooks. Children would not have to read by flashlight under the covers after curfew at night because a button turns on the illumination for the book's display screen (and shuts it off quickly when footsteps approach).

The children's parents could dispense with unstylish reading glasses because another button would instantly swell the book's text to a larger size.

In theory, an online bookstore could have hundreds of thousands of book titles ready for instant delivery. There would no longer be any such thing as an out-of-print book because once a title was digitized, there would be no cost to "print" another copy, even for one customer.

In reality, though, very few books today exist in digital form, so publishers or distributors would have to pay several hundred dollars each to have older books retyped or scanned into a computer. Establishing electronic royalties for authors and illustrators would be a legal morass.

Other than that, because the publisher has no paper, printing and distribution costs, one could expect the cost of a digitally delivered book to be less than that of one tattooed onto dried paste made from dead trees. Then again, one would have thought that audio CDs would cost less than vinyl LPs.

For teachers and students, the digital books hold the promise of never being outdated. Unfamiliar words and concepts would be defined with a quick tap on the screen, calling up a dictionary entry or supplementary text, all through hyperlinks.

For professionals, things like medical journal articles, changes in the tax code, court rulings and other timely material would be a click away.

As CD-ROM encyclopedias have shown, digital books can be enhanced with sound, video, animation, hyperlinking, automatic updating and interactive story lines.

Of course, paper books don't crash, run out of battery power over Nebraska, spew error messages, demand periodic upgrades, require technical support, attract professional thieves, entice the purchase of expensive upgrades or go to the repair shop for days at a time - all issues that Gingrich and the Texas schoolbook officials apparently believe won't apply to digital books.

And experience suggests that even if people own expensive, high-resolution desktop displays, they typically prefer to send long blocks of text to a printer rather than read them on a computer screen.

But digital books seem inevitable, as an alternative, not a replacement, for paper books. Microprocessors are getting smaller, more powerful and cheaper as displays are getting bigger, thinner and cheaper; memory capacity is getting bigger and cheaper; Internet access is becoming ubiquitous and cheaper, and book production and distribution costs are getting more expensive.

And in the even more distant future, the line between paper and electronic books may blur. In Cambridge, Mass., Professor Joe Jacobson of the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is trying to create an "ink" sensitive to electronic fields that, when printed on thin plastic, fabric or even paper, will lead to a book that can publish itself.

The ink is actually microscopic particles embedded in the paper, inside tiny capsules, that flip over in response to changes in an electric field. When they are flipped one way, they appear black; when they flop the other way, they are white. Electrical signals originating in the spine of the book tell the particles how to line up, creating text that can be rewritten over and over.

A book printed with so-called electronic ink could very closely approximate a traditional printed book, including paper pages. But depending on what the user wanted to read, the book could erase and redraw itself with new text and illustrations.

A digital book with electronic ink is years, if not decades, away. But Jacobson has formed a private company, E Ink, to find commercial uses for electronic ink in the near term, in products like clothing and wallpaper that could change patterns and display advertisements.

Several newspaper, magazine, advertising and electronics companies have poured millions of dollars into the research this year.

What's next? Jacobson thinks that it might soon be possible to print logic circuits, transistors and other computational devices on paper, cloth or plastic, creating, in effect, a two-dimensional personal computer.

If his group of physicists, chemists and engineers is successful, someday people won't have to carry books or computers - they can simply wear them.



Coming to Readers Soon

The following are the specifications listed by the manufacturers of three electronic books expected on the market. The actual performance data might differ from these numbers.

NAME Rocketbook.


PRICE About $500.

MARKET DATE By the end of the year.

CAPACITY 4,000 pages.

WEIGHT 1.25 lbs.

DIMENSIONS 7.1 inches high by 4.9 inches wide by 0.9 inches deep.

SCREEN 6.5 inches on diagonal.

BATTERY LIFE 20 hours with backlight on 40 hours with it off.

NAME EB Dedicated Reader.


PRICE $1,400 to $1,600.

MARKET DATE Early next year.

CAPACITY A half-million color pages.

WEIGHT 3.7 lbs.

DIMENSIONS 11.8 inches high by 9.5 inches wide by 1.8 inches deep.

SCREEN Two screens, each 13.3 inches on diagonal.

BATTERY LIFE Four to six hours.

NAME Softbook.

MANUFACTURER Softbook Press.

PRICE $299.

MARKET DATE September 1998.

CAPACITY 100,000 pages of text and gray-scale illustrations.

WEIGHT 2.9 lbs.

DIMENSIONS 11 inches high by 8.5 inches wide by 1 inch deep.

SCREEN 9.5 inches on diagonal.


N.Y. Times News Service