Microsoft, Amazon to bring 'eBooks to the masses'

Although the companies wouldn't be drawn on exactly when the Amazon eBook store will appear, both parties said it will be "as soon as possible."

Amazon will offer Microsoft Reader as the "preferred format and preferred reading appliance" for its upcoming eBook store, according to Lyn Blake, general manager of Amazon Books. Microsoft Reader is software that enables users to read electronic books, including a technology known as ClearType, designed to improve on-screen text resolution.

Visitors to the Amazon eBook site will be able to download a customised version of Microsoft Reader, Blake said at a press conference here at the Seybold publishing conference. "We chose Microsoft because it's the leading software technology for extended reading on any device," she added. Blake wouldn't reveal any details on eBook pricing. "It's too early to tell," she said.

"We are partnering to bring eBooks to the masses," Dick Brass, Microsoft vice president of technology development, said. He added that the customised version of Microsoft Reader for Amazon would be in the order of 90 to 99 per cent similar to the standard release of the software, but couldn't comment on specific Amazon features.

Microsoft already has an eBook partnership in place with Amazon's main rival online bookstore BarnesandNoble.com. First announced in January of this year, the tie-up opened for business earlier this month.

Amazon does expect to support other eBook formats as well as Microsoft's, Blake said, but declined to give any further specifics. Initially, the electronic book seller will look to use the digital-rights management features in Microsoft Reader in a very straightforward way, she added. Over time, however, Amazon may well look at using the technology in a variety of ways so as to, for example, allow one month's reading, instead of a lifetime's reading, for a cheaper price.

Amazon may also investigate offering to replace eBooks that people accidentally lose, according to Microsoft's Brass.

Microsoft will not restrict its eBook partnerships to Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and may consider similar deals with independent bookstores, Brass said. He's optimistic that more and more titles will become available in eBook form. Brass expects to see tens of thousands of titles available this year, with hundreds of thousands of eBook titles available a year from now.

The eBook technology has a long way to go, according to Brass. "We're at 1908 now; this is the Model T eBook," he said, holding up a notebook displaying a Star Trek eBook. "This is the worst eBook we'll ever have." Eventually, the difference between the resolution of a screen and a piece of paper will be the same, Brass said, with eBooks and laptop computers having the necessary storage to hold millions of titles.

Microsoft is currently working on improving the navigation features in its Reader software, Brass said. One thing eBooks can't display that printed titles can is the sense of where a reader is in a book. When you open a printed book to a particular page, you can see immediately, for instance, whether you're halfway through the book. Microsoft is investigating how to duplicate that feeling in eBooks, he added.

Another area the software vendor is working on is how to enable Microsoft Reader to handle navigating more than one book at a time so that readers can easily move between all the electronic titles they have loaded on their devices, Brass said. Microsoft is also investigating how to synchronise text and sound, he added.

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