When I wrote about e-books two years ago, it was clear that the market was still in its infancy. There were many players with different products and approaches, and it was hard for prospective buyers to choose among them.
Since then, there has been something of a shake-out. Glassbook is now owned by Adobe, and GemStar incorporates Nuvomedia and its Rocket eBook.
About the only constants in this dwindling world are the Open eBook Forum and Microsoft, whose MS Reader software is now at version 2.0.
It is hard not to see a familiar pattern emerging here: Microsoft enters a new market with its own solution, which initially has very little traction. As the innovators in that sector begin to fall by the wayside, Microsoft's approach - backed by exceedingly deep pockets - begins to gain adherents. Then one day everyone wakes up to find that Microsoft's software has become the standard.
Whatever the final outcome in terms of e-book standards, it is abundantly clear that there is no great pent-up demand for them yet.
This may well be a function of the hardware on which e-books are currently offered. Until the experience of using an e-book begins to match that of holding a paper book, particularly in terms of the display, the other obvious advantages of e-books - the ability to carry thousands of pages in one unit, searches, etc - are nullified.
However, there may be an alternative - one that offers all of those advantages, but does not require potential users to gamble on one particular e-book platform, or suffer its flawed attempts to re-invent the book. If all you need is access to thousands of pages and advanced search facilities, then an online solution to your desktop is perfectly adequate for many purposes.
In particular for people working all day in front of a PC, accessing content online is probably more convenient than using an auxiliary device.
This makes Safari Books Online an interesting experiment. Wisely, the books on offer - currently several hundred from publishers such as Cisco Press, Addison Wesley Professional, Peachpit Press, O'Reilly and Prentice Hall ( www.safaribooksonline.com/titlelist.html) - are aimed at an even narrower target audience than general office workers: those working in IT departments.
This group are more likely to be happy with reading pages on-screen, since it is what they do much of the time anyway. Moreover, the available titles are essentially reference works, which makes them ideal candidates for advanced search facilities that ordinary hard-copy books cannot match.
Safari Books Online uses a novel subscription approach. The monthly fee, which starts at $9.99, allows you to read a certain number of books; but each month you can swap some or all of these for other titles, provided the total number remains at or below your subscription level. This means that subscribers can swap out titles as they become obsolete or no longer of interest.
Alongside each on-screen page there is a navigation column that shows the structure of the book being viewed and the other titles available. You can search from any page through all the books on offer, the book you are reading, or just your current subscription set.
One of the best things about Safari is that it adopts a sensible approach to copying - there are none of the ridiculous digital rights management systems that have been one of the other reasons that e-books failed to take off. Instead, you are allowed to cut and copy sections of text - very useful for code examples - and you can print out any page. Since the books are broken up into many small but sensible sections, there is little incentive to copy an entire title this way - it would be far cheaper to buy the book.
Next week: AOL
This was first published in February 2002