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New Font Tech Will Make E-Books Gentler on Eyes

Fonts displayed on computer screens just are not quite as readable as old-fashioned print--but the new ClearType technology from Microsoft should help. Below is an excerpt from a Microsoft press release based on a speech that Bill Gates gave at Comdex on Nov. 15, 1998. At the end--struggling with the flaws of your own display!--you'll see my comments. -- David H. Rothman, Coordinator, TeleRead

Gates spoke of the great potential of the many new products enabled by the PC, such as eBooks (electronic books). Gates also unveiled Microsoft's innovative and pioneering new ClearTypeTM font technology, which will make eBooks and the LCD screens found on laptops and other computers almost as clear and easy to read as the printed page. "The ClearType software offers a breakthrough in screen readability that wasn't expected for another five years,'' said Gates.

Gates predicted that, with broad support from eBook manufacturers and the world's largest publishers, the fledgling eBook industry will take off far more rapidly than anyone has previously forecast. "The shape of books as we know them is changing,'' Gates said. "By 2001, 50,000 electronic titles will be available, and millions of people will be reading books in electronic form. Each eBook will have the capacity to store literally tens of thousands of titles -- as many as you find in some bookstores today.'' These personal libraries, he said, will make reading easier and more convenient, while helping to preserve the environment by saving millions of trees.


Hooray for the progress in font technology! But other readability issues remain. For example, Liquid Crystal Displays do not offer the same contrast between the "type" and the background that real books do. What's more, with a backlit LCD, you might as well be staring at a little lightbulb--hardly a treat for the eyes. Still, ClearType can't hurt. Nor can Bill Gates' use of the phrase "personal libraries."

But how to pay for the "tens of thousands of titles" on your own machine? Or at least the ones you want to read? Should the bookstore model to be the only one? What about the public library model?

The way some public library planners envision it, library books would vanish from your e-book-reader within several weeks after you checked them out electronically--just as today you must return a paper book to your friendly neighborhood library. That's frustrating. Why replicate the limits of paper technology, when many people can simultaneously read "copies" of an e-book? Shouldn't we be able to keep old books around for fast reference, so we could enjoy new ones in a more meaningful context? Library books vanishing from your machine would hardly be progress. Perhaps Nathan Myhrvold, Bill Gates' sidekick who's rich enough to have bought thousands of books for himself and his family, would agree with me here.

TeleRead, however, would truly let you build a "personal library" of library books as well as regular books. You could keep library books as long as you wanted. Writers and publishers would be paid from a national library fund when you downloaded the books or when you passed them on to friends. The same tracking mechanisms used for nonlibrary books could work well for those covered under TeleRead. Someday your machine could even come with many of the included library books embedded in firmware--ready for their use to be tracked (with ample provisions for protecting users' privacy). You could still download the books not in the firmware already.

The existence of improved font technology makes it all the more urgent for TeleRead to be reality if the Carnegie model is to survive; do we really want all new books to be "pay per download" or available only to subscribers of e-book clubs? Ideally Bill Gates, whom many in the media depicted as Carnegie II when it was fashionable, will help society cope with the the consequences of the e-books he is perfecting. In recent weeks I've seen some wonderful signs of open-mindedness about TeleRead from other people at Microsoft; may they continue, and may the media's Carnegie II see the possibilities here.

Carnegie I distinguished himself by championing free libraries; he dared to fight for the new when many others were content with pay-per-checkout libraries. Perhaps Carnegie II can follow with his own New Paradigm--library books that you can truly keep. The ghost of Carnegie I would approve. So would Amos Bokros.