Tablet PC Digital Publishing Conference: Has eBooks' Time Finally Come?

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On Thursday, December 5, a mix of media professionals, software developers, and book, magazine, and periodical publishers braved a snowstorm to attend Open eBook Forum's "Tablet PC Digital Publishing Conference," held at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium in New York City. The wintry weather did nothing to cool participating speakers' enthusiasm for the future of digital newspapers, magazines, and books. Throughout the day, many speakers made clear that they expect the new Tablet Personal Computer (Tablet PC) to extend the reach of the eBook publishing industry, and, ultimately, drive eBook sales.

"What we have learned in the past two years is that there has been moderate but steady growth of the eBook market, as reported by publishing and technology vendors," said Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, Inc., an eBook publishing and services provider, and president of Open eBook Forum, an international trade and standards organization for the eBook publishing industry. "Because of the mobility and the power of the Tablet PC -- it's very encouraging [for the digital publishing industry]."

The Tablet PC is best described as a large palmtop computer, but one that runs Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, the latest version of Windows. The user writes with a stylus, or "Tablet" pen, entering information into the computer with it, as opposed to a mouse. The Tablet offers enhanced onscreen readability and advanced handwriting and speech recognition capabilities. The computer can be used as a small laptop, complete with keyboard, or the user can fold the screen over so that the PC takes on the look of a writing tablet, hence the name. "The Tablet PC is … the evolution of the laptop," said Bert Keely, senior architect for the Microsoft Tablet PC Team, the day's first speaker.

Though much of the event was as much infomercial as information, software developers who spoke at the conference appeared genuinely excited by the new computer, and they noted that they expect the Tablet's mobility and flexibility to significantly broaden the eBook market. "You can expect several hundred thousand people looking for [eBooks] to read," Keely predicted, noting the expected early sales of Tablet PCs.

He said that Microsoft is marketing the Tablet PC to three types of consumers: computer workers who travel frequently; those who are often away from their desk but require access to information; and professionals in the healthcare, education, and legal professions. Microsoft expects the market for the device to reach $17 million in just two years time.

Some also expect eBooks to make real strides in both the education and library markets sooner rather than later. OverDrive's Potash noted, "The higher education market is being serviced" by eBook publishers. For example, he said, the Kelley School of Business, an MBA program at Indiana University, makes Harvard Business Review case studies available only in electronic format. "Education will be huge for Tablet PC publishing," he summed up.

James Alexander, director of product management of Adobe Systems, reported that his company is stocking Adobe eBooks in both public and corporate libraries. For instance, a library can buy licenses for five copies of a particular book to make available for download by patrons at a given time. For a corporation with a library, this means that "they don't have to buy each employee a copy of a book they want them to read," he explained.

While that may sound like bad news for the bookselling industry, speaker Clifford Guren, group product manager of eReading, Windows Division for Microsoft, noted that a Microsoft survey of Microsoft Reader users (an eBook-reading software) indicated that eBook readers make profitable customers. "Fifty percent purchased 11 or more books in the past 12 months," he said. "That's nearly double the national average." The hard part, he noted, is getting the consumer to try it for the first time. Once they do, he contended, they develop an eBook habit.

Publishing executives remained cautious in regards to their expectations for eReading, though they concurred that the Tablet PC is a positive step forward for eBook publishing. "The portability is the key for eReading," said Amanda Kimmel, director, New Media for Random House, Inc.

Kelly Leonard, executive director of eBook Publishing for AOL Time Warner Book Group, said that the multi-media capabilities of the Tablet PC could greatly enhance illustrated books. "Illustrated books have been very limited until now," she said. "If we do [an illustrated book] on a Tablet PC, we can use photos and videos." However, she said, "I lived through the CD experience, and I don't want to retread what happened in 1995 and 1996. I hope the inclusion of multi-media will have real, genuine value." --David Grogan