Microsoft plans to deliver new software early next year that it says will greatly improve the readability of text displayed on a computer screen.
Called Microsoft Reader, the software could give a jump-start to the emerging market for "e-books," or specialised devices for reading text in digital form. It will also make for a "pretty good reading experience" on traditional laptop, desktop and handheld computers, said Dick Brass, vice president of technology development at Microsoft.
The announcement was made at the annual Seybold publishing conference in San Francisco, which runs here this week.
Microsoft Reader is based on a font-enhancing technology called ClearType, which Microsoft first demonstrated at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas last November. A beta version of Microsoft Reader will be available by the end of the fourth quarter, with the final product available for free download from the Web early next year, Brass said. The product will also be distributed by content providers who sell books and other reading matter online, he said.
Microsoft Reader can increase the resolution of on-screen text by a factor of between two and three, making it appear almost as clear as printed type, Brass claimed. The product also addresses formatting issues by justifying right margins and removing distracting icons that clutter a page and prevent a reader from becoming "immersed" in digital text, Brass said.
History hasn't been kind to electronic reading devices, Brass admitted. Previous products, such as Sony's Data Discman, were unsuccessful because they were either too heavy or too expensive, or didn't imitate closely enough the print experience, he said. The latest wave of e-books, available from firms like Librius and Everybook , are "much better, but they're still not quite there," Brass said.
Microsoft, of course, thinks Microsoft Reader will change all of that. In a string of bold predictions, the executive said e-books by 2003 will weigh less than one pound, have batteries that last for eight hours, and cost as little as US$100 -- a fifth of today's typical prices. A few years after that, e-books will be on sale at kiosk newsstands, and within the decade "e-titles" will outsell print titles, Brass predicted.
Work on Microsoft Reader isn't complete yet. The company is still conducting tests "to see whether the type hurts people's eyes or gives people headaches," Brass said. In addition, like the music industry with the MP3 format, the publishing industry is seeking assurances that its valuable intellectual property won't be pirated if online book publishing takes off.
"Publishers want to make sure their books don't get stolen, and we'll support that and offer copy protection software," Brass said.
Adobe has said it will announce new technology here tomorrow that will create new e-commerce possibilities for publishers, although it won't disclose details publicly yet. Adobe will be joined in the announcement by online booksellers Barnes & Noble and Fatbrain.com Iand e-book makers Everybook and Glassbook .
Asked why Microsoft chose to develop its own technology instead of going with something already available like Adobe's PDF, Brass asserted that PDF isn't up to the task. PDF doesn't "scale well" across different sized devices and requires a powerful processor to display content, Brass said. In addition, PDF is a proprietary Adobe technology and requires users to pay a royalty fee for its use, Brass maintained.
Microsoft's ClearType technology can increase the display quality of a typical laptop from around 110 dpi (dots per inch) to around 250 dpi, said Bill Hill, a Microsoft engineer who has worked closely on the technology.
While a computer screen appears white, its dots, or "pixels," are in fact comprised of three units colored red, green and blue. While the pixels appear small to the naked eye, they are still larger than those created by a laser printer, and create text that appears slightly fuzzy at the edges.
Adding an additional "third of a pixel" to create more defined text leads to "color fringing," where the pixels no longer appear white, Hill said. ClearType uses a complex set of algorithms that reduce the color fringing to a point where the eye can't detect it, Hill said.
"It's an illusion; we manipulate the color fringe to a point where you can't see it," he said.
Besides text, Microsoft is exploring applying the technology behind ClearType to graphics and even moving images, which could enhance the realism in video games, for example, Hill said. The company has applied for several technology patents related to this, he said.
Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Washington, is at +1-425-882-8080, or at http://www.microsoft.com.