Electronic books have the potential to do more than imitate the paper variety, says Cooper James
The Electronic Book Fair in London last month provided a welcome forum for publishers to meet and consider new approaches in the exploding CD-rom market. But it was a low-key affair, perhaps reflecting the belief among most players that no one has any very credible ideas.

Industry leaders Dorling Kindersley and Prentice Hall established an early reputation for quality CD-rom products. This might have been thought to be an advantage, given the failure of the larger companies to generate excitement at last month's massive multimedia conference Milea, which is run annually in Cannes by Reed Midem Organisation. The consensus at the Book Fair, however, seemed to be that despite the hype surrounding this infant industry, its chief participants are determined to play safe, churning out CD-rom books that are as much like paper books as possible.

Smaller companies are just as devoid of ideas about how best to exploit this new medium as their larger counterparts. Even Voyager disappointed: it is one of the few firms offering truly interesting products, but the speech given by its president, Bob Stein, discussed the importance of imposing the structure of the traditional book upon CD-roms in order to make their use "more intuitive".

The general stagnation is not for want of technological capability: the best stands belonged to companies dealing with the production end of the market. Westpoint Peripherals was showing off NSM's CD-rom "Jukebox", which can access up to 150 discs within four seconds. While mainly targeted at libraries and other information storage facilities, the Jukebox can accommodate either standard, read-only drives or drives that can imprint blank discs, making it attractive to small publishing companies. The fact that JVC's new CD-rom writing drive, also on show, is set to retail for less than £2,000, means that it is now possible to set up a fairly impressive production facility for well under £10,000. Such cheap industry entry costs make it even harder to understand why the big players are not more desperate to corner the market in ideas.

The Internet Book Shop was demonstrating its on-line facility, which is bright, user-friendly and innovative. From its World Wide Web page, you can browse the stocks of hundreds of UK bookshops, and order books to be delivered to you. IBS has got round the problem of payment over the Net, which is notoriously insecure, by asking customers to fax credit- card information to them.

Meanwhile, Thomson Publishing was carrying some of the best Internet guides and computer books I have yet seen.

But the CD-rom manufacturers themselves - including ePublishing and Wise & Loveys - seem content to dump encyclopaedia-style text and graphics on to discs, providing access to the information through a simple Windows- style interface. This may allow ease of use for established PC users, but as far as I can make out, this is the only point in its favour. While the capability of CDs to provide a combination of video, text and sound may not be all the hype would have us believe, they still have a potential for presenting information that has not yet been even partially explored.

At present, it seems the makers of "electronic books" are happy to provide us with digital versions of what we already have on our shelves and, to be frank, there seems to be little point in this. The Electronic Book Fair proved just one thing: that technology continues to march ahead of ideas.