TOKYO Japan's electronic-book industry will begin a new chapter in the deployment of electronic books next week when the E-Book Japan consortium begins to offer them on demand. The experimental launch will expand to become a nationwide field test in November involving about 5,000 titles and 500 e-book readers.
Consortium members intend to hammer out a practical business model as the field test develops.
Established last October, E-Book Japan includes about 145 member companies from the publishing, electronics, communications, broadcasting and retail industries. About half the members are publishers.
The consortium applied for $15 million in funding and received $6.7 million from the Japan Information Processing Development Center (JIPDEC), a public corporation working with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). The JIPDEC project is scheduled to end next January, but may be extended through March 2000.
The goal of the preliminary experiment that begins next week is to get a real-world picture of e-book distribution and technology. The reader software, dubbed PC Viewer, will be distributed by the consortium to its members. The electronic content for the books will be distributed via satellite and through the Internet. NTT, Japan's largest telecom carrier, will be in charge of satellite distribution.
For the nationwide field test, E-Book Japan is preparing 20 downloading stations in bookstores and convenience stores and 500 mobile readers.
Although color screens may be used later, the first mobile readers will be XGA-resolution, gray-scale models. They will consist of a single screen and will be about the same size as a paperback.
The titles will cover business and educational topics and will include a range of publications such as classics, comics, contemporary novels and how-to books. "About 3,500 titles in a wide variety were already provided by member publishers. By the beginning of the test, we'll have 5,000 titles," said Akio Oikawa, the bureau chief of the secretariat.
E-Book Japan uses a proprietary image-data format, tentatively called the EBJ format. "Our first goal is to carry out the field test that starts in November. For that launch, we strategically adopted the image-data [format]. We are considering text data, and are watching the discussions at W3W, as well as audio and moving pictures," said Tatsuo L. Kobayashi, technical director at E-Book Japan.
With the image-data format, a book's contents can be digitized in a short period of time. Image-data formatted files do not need to be proofread, which is another advantage. At the consortium's digitizing center, 25 books per day are scanned and converted into the image-data format, according to the consortium.
The mobile reader will include a PCMCIA Type-II slot for removable media. Image-data files for one novel will take up an average of 16 Mbytes of space. For the field test, E-Book Japan plans to use Iomega's Clik! drive for Type-II slots to store several titles in one removable 2-inch Clik! disk, which has a capacity of 40 Mbytes. "It is reasonable in terms of cost and capacity at present. We are going to supply a PCMCIA card with Clik! for the mobile reader," said Kobayashi.
The e-book reader is expected to spawn a new market for LCDs. Masaya Hijikigawa, corporate executive director of Sharp's LCD division, stressed the importance of cultivating new applications for LCDs in his keynote speech at Fine Process Technology Japan '99 held last week, and said e-books are among those with the "most potential."
Sharp was one of the originators of the e-book project. About three years ago, Sharp developed an LCD with a density of 175 dots per inch. Companies that saw the LCD became the core members of the consortium.
The Sharp display has a density of 175 dpi, a resolution of 1,024 x 768 dots (XGA), and a 7.3-inch screen.
Sharp is in charge of developing the reader for the field test. The reader will have a DMTN LCD, which is an STN panel that can be switched between backlit and reflective modes.
Bureau chief Oikawa said, "Manufacturers that can make the reader are all our members. At present, no other manufacturer is building the reader, but soon they will join." Toshiba, which is in the process of joining the group, has already proposed that the consortium use low-temperature polysilicon LCDs. Toshiba is focusing its development efforts for its LTPS LCDs on "print quality" to differentiate its products from competitors'. The company started shipping its 202-dpi LCDs in April.
Copy protection is another critical issue. Though Kobayashi did not disclose details, material is protected through the use of a reader's ID number. Using the ID number as a key, content downloaded to a certain reader can be played back on other readers. The scheme can specify over a range from "no protection" (copy freely) to "no copy" (read only on a properly ID'd reader). Or a portion of the content can be protected; that way, a user trying to read content that's been downloaded to a different reader with a different ID may be able to play back an earlier part of a mystery novel, for example, but not the conclusion if that part is protected, according to Kobayashi.
This experiment will not include a system for handling cash transactions because the consortium's requested budget was cut in half. But E-Book Japan expects to make use of the electronic-commerce technology that is being developed by various groups.
Several groups in Japan have already begun e-book distribution, but on a much smaller scale compared with E-Book Japan. Most of those operators are also members of the consortium.
E-book technology is also being pursued in the United Sates, but to date there has been no overseas collaboration. E-Book Japan has not made any effort to develop a common standard, but the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) joined the consortium as an associate member.