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Close but no cigar

03 Dec

This article was originally written for the Subrosa Blog and is reproduced here with permissions.

It’s looks like Amazon will move a significant amount of Kindles this year. They’ve got the price right and more eBooks are becoming available. Grannies are using them. Schools too no doubt.

It wasn’t always so. In 1996/7 a new device burst onto the computing scene. It was the Palm Pilot a spanking wee machine similar to a modern day Blackberry but chunkier with a smaller mono screen and a stylus. What was it for? It was a personal digital assistant or PDA. I got one as soon as they were available and thought it would be just the thing to replace my aging Filofax. Which it did reasonably well.

The stylus was used to write at the bottom of the screen transferring what was written into the device using hand writing conversion software. You had to re-learn how to write some letters and numbers but on the whole it worked pretty well. It synchronised to your PC via a wee cradle thingy and you could transfer docs back and forth as well.

At the time I had a client who typeset books and the Palm Pilot was very much of interest as a devise, which could be used to read books from. We were interested in trying to develop eBooks. There were a number of eBook formats available for use with PCs and laptops but the only eBooks available were writers publishing their own stuff or older books, which were out of copyright. We set to work and within a few months we had a working prototype, which demonstrated what was possible. My client hocked it around the big publishers and the resulting silence was deafening.

The publishers were terrified. They’d seen how music had been devalued by downloading  from the internet to the extent that sales were being seriously affected.

My client and I decided that Hannibal would be the perfect book to run a full test with. We had various features we designed which added a huge amount of value to the content of the book. Why Hannibal? Because the main character, Dr Lecter had a flamboyant, premium brand and artistically rich lifestyle, which would allow us to better, demonstrate the rich experience which could be delivered within an eBook. Alas the publishers would have none of it. They wouldn’t even give us permission to use a chapter or even a few pages.

Not to be deterred we pushed on. I took our prototype to Comdex the huge computer show held every November in Las Vegas. You know how it is, it’s difficult work but someone’s got to do it. I trudged around the show and demonstrated it to anyone and everyone who might have been remotely interested. Not many people were.

When I got back we had quite a few telephone calls from journalists in the USA who had heard about our demonstrations. They wanted to know how we’d done it when the big software houses and hardware developers couldn’t get anywhere near what we’d managed with a bog standard PDA. We declined to say as it wouldn’t have helped our case to give away that sort of information.

We developed things further and moved to the Compaq/HP IPAQ, which was a much improved PDA design and easier to work with. We also tested our output on one the small letterbox Sony portables, which would allow the text to be rotated on the screen when it was turned 90 degrees. The output was pretty amazing.

The latest devices, such as the Sony Reader, the previously mentioned Kindle and the Ipad are light years ahead of the technology we had then. I’ve read a good few eBooks and the quality has been patchy and poor, in a lot of cases with typos galore etc. although things have been improving slowly.  The content hasn’t developed a great deal from what we had in 1997/8. The Ipad is a bit too big and heavy and the Kindle and Sony are mono although colour version available now

In the end we stopped developing an idea people were too frightened to make available. Instead we designed a small software package, which could take text and pics in any format and then convert them to the chosen eBook format that the publishers wanted. It was a three-click operation. My client used this very successfully to gain a huge advantage over the competition in converting the typesetting for books into the eBook format of choice.

To be fair Scottish Enterprise supported the continuing development but the eBook output was probably a fabulous product, which was way, way, way before it’s time. It’s satisfying to know that two tiny wee Scottish businesses managed to develop a working eBook device and a very effective conversion tool and none of the big players could do it. They didn’t because they weren’t looking in the right direction and continue to miss huge potential even now.

There’s still an opportunity to develop eBooks a good bit further and it’s something I would love to do if the right sort of book came along with a writer, agent, editor and publisher brave enough and with enough financial clout to rock the boat.

I’m not holding my breath though.

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Posted by on December 3, 2011 in General

 

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