Readers hungry for a good page-turner will still turn to bookstores and libraries, but cheaper computers and changing consumer habits suggest that electronic books, or ebooks, still have a future.

  

To be sure, that future is years away, particularly after Barnes & Noble Inc., the world's largest bookseller, earlier this month shook the nascent market by shutting its ebooks' store.

 

Daniel Blackman of barnesandnoble.com said downloadable books have not lived up to their hype.

   

"There is a market ... but it has not materialised to the point that we will be able to support the business," he said.

 

Multiple books

   

As with digital music, multiple books - say, Shakespeare's collected works - can be stored on a memory card the size of a stick of gum, making them popular with travellers, students and professionals.

 

They are read on hand-held devices running operating systems by Palm or Microsoft, or on a PC or notebook computer.

   

Ebooks may find their niche with tech-savvy youth, unfazed by the notion of browsing literature on a screen, and the growing legion of retirement-age readers, according to Richard Doherty, research director at Envisioneering Group.

 

"There is a market ... but it has not materialised to the point that we will be able to support the business"

Daniel Blackman
barnesandnoble.com

"Two audiences that will benefit best are young people who loathe the idea of a library ... and ageing people who want the convenience of large type on demand," or freedom from lugging heavy hardcover tomes.

   

For now, ebooks are an afterthought in the publishing world. Less than 500,000 electronic books were sold in the United States in 2002, compared with more than 1.5 billion printed books, estimates research firm Ipsos-Insight in Chicago. 

 

Ebullience

   

Back in 2000, downloadable books enjoyed the same kind of ebullience lavished over all things internet, with research firms projecting sales of about $250 million by 2005.

   

That excitement waned after a brief period of hype, which saw the likes of Microsoft, Palm Inc, Adobe Systems, Gemstar and Franklin Electronic Publishers developing gadgets on which one could read stories or software to mimic the look of a printed page.

   

Seen as too heavy, too expensive and not as much fun to read as paperbacks, tablet-like ebook devices failed to catch on. Gemstar-TV Guide International, which aspired to be the world's top ebook supplier, quit the business in July and stopped selling the gadgets.

   

Still, Palm, Microsoft and Adobe continue to improve their respective reader software, which are free. Palm, Adobe and retailer Amazon, which also sells downloadable books, has said they plan no major strategic changes.