Electronic books seem like a good idea: we can order, download and read them without leaving home; we won't need more bookshelf space; and if we buy a portable reader or palmtop for $200 to $700, we can read them anywhere, even in the dark if the device is backlit.
Will it replace a printed book? Maybe not.
Books need to be translated into different languages for worldwide distribution, but readers, such as Microsoft Reader and Glassbook Reader, often don't save files in the same format so they can't be translated between devices.
If we go to the Barnes and Noble site, http://ebooks.barnesandnoble.com/education/index.asp?userid=52YB0PMZ0R&srefer=, we can download for free both the Microsoft Reader and the Glassbook Reader, but we have to download books specifically for one or the other reader. Glassbook says it will read other documents, specifically PDF and HTML files, but it couldn't recognize the books I downloaded for the Microsoft Reader, nor could Microsoft Reader read books downloaded for Glassbook. Both readers are designed to work with Windows 9x and NT. Mac users will soon have a version of the Glassbook Reader that was due out at the end of September.
The Erocket portable reader has a Mac version.
With the brief lifespan of electronic devices competing to become the standard, a big investment in a portable reader appears risky. The advantages of ebooks include being able to skip to any page, do a search for specific words, make enotes, bookmark and highlight passages, click on a word for its entry in a dictionary, hear downloaded audio books, and change the size and appearance of text.
I downloaded both readers and a few of the free classic books. The Glassbook Reader at http://www.glassbook.com/ has an easy-to-use interface with icons to turn the page, go back, find information about the book, and choose a book from the library or link to an online bookstore. The display was very readable, and the icons to increase font size or reduce it are visible on the screen. It only includes the American Heritage Dictionary in its 'Plus" version for $39.95.
Microsoft Reader at http://www.microsoft.com/ reader/ hides most of the icons and menus, so that reading the "Read Me First" is necessary to find out that you can use arrow keys and the spacebar to navigate. It offers a downloadable free dictionary and will read audio books downloaded from www.audiobooks.com. To use the Glassbook Reader audio capabilities, you must have Windows 2000 installed.
Glassbook informs us that it is incompatible with MacAfee/ Cybermedia Oil Change and First Aid 95, 98, or 2000. To avoid crashes, we must uninstall those programs. We must upgrade McAfee VirusScan 1.x-3.x to 4.x or 5.x, upgrade InocuLAN 4.x to InoculateIT 5.x.
Even though I don't have any of those incompatible programs installed, Glassbook did crash my system, but only after Microsoft froze the system several times and I uninstalled it and reinstalled it several times. Microsoft continues to lose words and graphics while navigating backwards in the book. I performed several maintenance tasks on my computer to see if it is at fault, but found no conclusive evidence, and Microsoft Reader continues to malfunction.
Still, accessing and using the software and downloads with no problems whatsoever is time-consuming. Paper media such as books, are not subject to obsolescence, crashes, and incompatibilities, and can be borrowed and lent over and over. The only time-consuming tasks after that are finding a comfortable spot with good light. Your dog might eat your book, but a book never freezes up or crashes.