SAN FRANCISCO (08/09/2000) - As one publishing bigwig after another took the stage Tuesday in a New York conference room to boast about Microsoft Corp.
(MSFT) 's new e-book software, a kilt-wearing Scotsman sat in a corner, smiling.
Bill Hill, who had tucked a Microsoft polo shirt into his kilt, helped invent Clear Type, the display technology for the Microsoft Reader software. The company says Clear Type makes electronic books seem so similar to the paper kind that readers would happily download books from the Web. The software is available for free from the e-bookstore on Barnesandnoble.com, along with free downloads of 100 titles - all classics, from people with names like Bronte and Dickens. Newer titles are also available, for 20 to 30 percent less than the paper versions.
To create the new technology it calls Clear Type, Microsoft says, its people went back and studied the old technology: the hardcover book. "What is it about the book that allows you to immerse yourself in it for hours and not even hear the telephone ringing?" asks Hill, in a thick brogue. "A book is nothing but dirty marks on shredded trees, but it captures your attention. How the hell does it do that?"
To figure that out, Hill's team consulted with ophthalmologists, optometrists and physiologists to learn how the brain processes curves, edges and glare. The researchers also hired people to read e-books, testing their immersion by calling their names - first softly, then louder and louder - to see how long it took to divert their attention.
"When we read, we're in an altered state of consciousness. It's almost an hypnotic experience, and the book itself disappears," says Hill, who seems to embody Redmond's effort to marry the old (the book) with the new (the computer). His long mane of hair pulled back in a ponytail, Hill pulled a Pocket PC loaded with the Reader software from a Scottish purse tied around his waist.
Hill says the new software definitely mesmerized one of his test cases: his 9-year-old son, to whom he gave a Pocket PC with the classic novel Treasure Island in Clear Type. "He disappears into the living room," Hill recounts.
"Five minutes later, I stick my head in and he says, 'Dad, there's a typo on page 20.' He didn't say another word for an hour and a half."
Clear Type is indeed easy on the eyes, and it mimics the experience of reading a book in several ways. Instead of scrolling down the screen, the reader flips to the next page. There are no toolbars or other distractions. Nothing appears on the screen but the text.
And it appears as if the Clear Type software might affect a lot more than the nascent field of e-books. The software will be available as soon as next year for all Microsoft applications, improving the experience of reading e-mail and looking at pages on the Web, says Steve Stone, director of product development for Microsoft's e-book group.
Who knows? Some day you might even find your e-mail hypnotic.