Special Report on Electronic Gifts: Enough books to fill a library in the palm of your hand: With a portable CD, you can carry your reference books in your pocket. Tony Feldman reports

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE a device like an electronic calculator which can squeeze an entire library into the palm of your hand. Think of a pocket-sized compact disc player with a built-in screen and keyboard which can offer you the contents of several libraries complete with sound and pictures. You are not gazing into the distant future speculating about what might one day be invented. You are looking at a new generation of electronic books which is available today, palm-top devices which combine the power of electronic information with the portability and convenience of the printed word.

Two types of electronic book are emerging: devices using chips to store information and others which use compact discs. The chip-based electronic books look much like pocket calculators and their memories are either chips housed permanently inside or plug-in cards which can be interchanged, depending on which database you want to read.

One of the world's leading pioneers of this technology is a US company called Franklin Electronic Publishers who, in the late 1980s, created the first palm-top electronic spellcheckers, dictionaries and thesauruses. Now Franklin has launched its Digital Book System (DBS, for short), a pocket-sized device weighing less than 5 ounces, which can access the contents of two interchangeable memory cards. Each card can hold the equivalent of up to 20,000 pages of text. Using built-in software, you can instantly search the database and find the information you need.

Franklin is now launching a range of reference books on cards for the DBS and is encouraging other publishers to do the same. You can already buy Franklin's original range of electronic spellcheckers and dictionaries in Britain. Its Digital Book System should be in the shops by next summer priced at about pounds 150. The electronic book system based on compact discs comes from Sony and you can buy it right now. Sony call it the Data Discman. Launched in Britain last July, it is a palm-top compact disc system which plays 8cm CD-ROMs (compact disc read only memories) or CD audio singles. The device has a fold-up screen and a small keyboard to allow you to control access to information on the discs. Each disc can store up to 90,000 pages of textual information and the latest models can also handle sound and pictures. The cheapest of these players costs pounds 300; discs already released range in price from pounds 25 to pounds 40 and include such favourites as Hugh Johnson's Wine Guide, the AA Guide to Hotels & Restaurants, Time Out City Guides and a whole range of consumer and business reference books.

Will electronic books ever take over from the printed word? Many people will certainly find them a real help in running their businesses and, in some areas, therefore, they will do well. But it will be a long time before most of us will want to curl up with one at the end of a long day and so the printed word will probably retain its popular appeal for some years to come.

Tony Feldman is a strategic consultant specialising in electronic media.