E-bookmaker makes fed push

The Defense Department is exploring whether to use electronic books to distribute training materials under a pilot project with digital bookmaker SoftBook Press Inc.

If the department moves forward with the project, it would become the second major federal customer for SoftBook, Menlo Park, Calif. Last month, the company announced a deal with eFederal Inc. and the Government Printing Office to provide the Federal Register to subscribers who use a SoftBook Reader.

SoftBook is one of a handful of companies to market electronic books—handheld devices that try to mimic the look and feel of bound books. For example, these devices display text or graphics formatted similar to printed pages, and users can view these pages one at a time, rather than having to scroll down a screen. Users of SoftBook Readers can bookmark pages and annotate what they read.

SoftBook considers federal agencies to be prime customers for its SoftBook Readers and electronic publishing tools, said Kimberly Woodward, director of marketing for the firm's enterprise technology group. "We believe enterprise segments will take off first because they are the classic early adopters," she said. Similar to corporations, federal agencies publish many internal documents—such as training manuals, operating procedures and regulations—that they revise frequently or need to distribute quickly to employees.

"A couple of the characteristics we look for are mobile workers or distributed workers," Woodward said, as well as "people who don't use a PC as part of their regular jobs." She said she could not disclose which agencies SoftBook is working with but did confirm that DOD is testing the company's products.

Victor Votsch, senior editor with the Seybold Report on Internet Publishing, an industry newsletter, said he believes SoftBook is the first company in the emerging electronic books market to launch a federal sales push, although he expects other firms to compete as their products become available. Meanwhile, he said, customers are likely to be cautious about adopting a technology for which there are no agreed-upon industry standards.

"I think it's going to be a growing market," Votsch said. "This the first generation. Like with most technologies, there's concern about the first generation. Who wants to buy the next Betamax?"

SoftBook and other vendors, including Microsoft Corp., are working on a standard for formatting documents for electronic books that will be called Open eBook. But Votsch said the industry also has to figure out how to manage access rights so that users can pass documents around. Right now the only way users can share a document on an electronic book is if one person lends his reader to another.

SoftBook is offering federal agencies a package of products and services, including readers, a publishing toolkit for converting documents to Hypertext Markup Language format and software for uploading HTML documents to an intranet or World Wide Web site so that users can download them from a secure dial-up connection.

John Williams, president of eFederal, which provides data preparation services to the government, said electronic books complement existing electronic publishing technologies, such as CDs and the Web. "An agency has to look at the entire spectrum of publishing," he said. Electronic books would be appropriate for "boutique" publications, such as materials that need to be distributed to people without computer access, or for information that agencies want to protect from copying.

The SoftBook Reader has some limitations. It cannot be used for any application other than reading documents and does not support two-way communications. Woodward said the company designed its products this way to protect the security and copyrights of commercially published documents. "We want to take advantage of the market we're going after, which is reading," she said. "We can evolve it as market demand dictates, and we would look to doing that."

Olu Olaniyan, a technical specialist with Highway 1, an industry consortium that promotes government technology use and whose members include SoftBook, said the company probably will need to add Web and e-mail capabilities to the device eventually. "You have all these other portable devices out there that do mail and stuff like that," he said, although upgrades "will come down to whatever the [customers'] needs are."

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