The e-literacy problem

National | Even the Net-savvy aren't buying e-books, but they are buying e-games; and Microsoft hopes they'll buy Office

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

Why Johnny Won't e-read
Are e-book publishers downloading the writing on the wall? A recent survey shows a remarkably low demand for electronic texts, though some in the industry remain optimistic. The typical e-book is read either off a computer screen or on a small portable reader. Numerous free titles and a handful of commercial releases are available for downloads, but current numbers are limp. "Online users now don't want to give up paper books, but with young people growing up on computer games," said Barrie Rappaport, senior account executive for the research firm Ipsos-NPD BookTrends, "reading electronically should become second nature." Right now, it's barely third nature. Mr. Rappaport's firm surveyed 3,296 online users and found that only 3 percent said they were "very likely" to buy an e-book-and only 20 percent were "somewhat likely." The rest were "not very likely" or "not at all likely" to buy one. Meanwhile, the percentage of books purchased online reached 7 percent last year. Part of the problem is that the price structure of e-books is out of whack. While customers typically expect to pay less for something they download, the cost of a commercial title can be more than twice that of the paperback version. Much of the selection consists of computer and business titles, along with some scattered novels. A large amount of Christian classics are available in e-Book form since they are in the public domain, but they are usually formatted for reading on conventional Web pages instead of portable readers. With the number of available titles still small, one part of the e-book dream can't be realized-reducing the bulk required by ink and paper. A college student could simply download a set of files instead of toting a heavy stack of conventional textbooks. The space required to maintain a large personal library can be reduced to almost nothing. Pay to play
The video-game industry has a plan to make more money in a tight economy: Instead of simply selling the latest amusements for a flat price, some companies plan to start charging subscription fees to play in their virtual worlds. Many new games on both PCs and TV consoles will require fees from $5 to $10 to keep playing. Users have to pay by credit card and access the games over the Internet. The model isn't that far from video arcades, where players are always asked to drop in more quarters to continue. "It is the only business model that works," said Mark Jacobs, president of Mythic Entertainment, a Fairfax, Va., company busy building an online world based on Camelot. The industry's move represents a possible shift away from game ownership to game rental and was partially inspired by Sony's success with Everquest. The company rakes in $3.8 million every month in $10 subscriptions, as role players become virtual warriors fighting pixilated monsters. The game's popularity and addictiveness have become a computing legend-though it has annoyed more than a few parents who complain that their kids spend too much time staring at a screen. Electronic Arts plans subscription-based games from the popular Star Wars and Sims franchises. But to keep the subscription fees coming, game makers must create hardcore players with increasingly addictive games. The sales goal is for the virtual world to become a substitute for the real world, as the meter keeps running. I gave at the office
Microsoft launched its latest Office software to the business world with flash and fanfare, but observers predicted a lukewarm response from customers. Office XP is the new version of the business software that includes the Word text editor and Excel spreadsheet used by an estimated 250 million people around the world. It offers new features, but most users aren't expected to run out and buy a new copy right away. Eventually, Microsoft hopes, Office XP should be ubiquitous. It isn't cheap-the basic program is $479 for new users-but it is standard equipment in most of corporate America and accounts for nearly 30 percent of Microsoft's revenue. Many of the new features are intended to leverage the Internet to make work more productive. The boldest part of Office XP is something called smart tags. It lets users link text in Microsoft Word or other documents to information available over the Internet. For example, a smart tag can be set for a certain stock price, which can be automatically updated throughout the day. It can also be used to search databases, records, and other resources for information. Another addition called SharePoint allows employees to share information over a company's intranet. Also, a new feature called task panes was created basically to help new users, allowing easy access to recently used documents and options. Even with the additions, analysts say Office XP will be a hard sell in the near term. Many critics say there isn't enough to justify the high price. After all, tools like word processors and spreadsheets have been essentially the same for years. More seriously, the struggling economy may put upgrades on the back burner.

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