Product ReviewDigital Book Services: Paper? We Don't Need No Stinking Paper!

whole mugwhole mugwhole mughalf mug
5 Outstanding 4 Very Good
3 Acceptable 2 Has Potential 1 Poor


E-Books vs. Digital Books
Let's get our definitions straight. An electronic book is a PDA-like device designed specifically to contain and display book-length manuscript text. There are really only two such gizmos on the market that are worth mentioning just now: the Softbook (pretty cool) and the Rocket eBook (very cool). There's talk of others, and there's some software out there that lets you read books on your PDA, but these two devices are the current contenders and likely winners if this approach survives.

A digital book is the data, the encoded text. The device that displays it depends on the service that stores and supports it. Most of the technical digital books currently available can be accessed through a PC with a Web browser online or off—no special hardware required. A few require that users download proprietary software to read them offline.

YOU'D HAVE TO have spent the last year in a mine shaft not to have heard something about the arrival of e-books. I should probably say "the return of e-books," because the first crop of personal electronic document readers actually sprouted from the fevered imaginations of forward-looking inventors in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, they were a bit too forward-looking; those devices were ahead of the market by nearly a decade and failed to bear fruit. The latest batch, as exemplified by Rocket eBook and Softbook, represents a more timely innovation, riding on the newly laid asphalt of the Information Superhighway. The Net has made a big difference, content delivery-wise, and big companies are investing in the technology.

But the future of e-books is still very much in doubt. All of book publishing awaits with bated breath to see whether the public will accept these book-reading gizmos. Yet, the question of whether average readers will be willing to curl up with the latest John Grisham novel if it comes encased in a blinking beige box misses what may be the most important market for digital books. I'm talking about the management of professional reference materials.

I love books. I'll always love them. In many ways, they are the perfect information delivery system. You don't have to plug them in, and you can swat mosquitoes with them without wrecking their innards. But what if they came with searching capabilities, hyperlinks, and audio/video features? What if you could keyword search not just one book, but a whole library? What if you could pass along comments and bookmarks to wired colleagues? And what if you had access to libraries of the latest technical materials, 24 hours a day, without filling your bookshelves to creaking with technical tomes?

Online digital reference libraries may not be the sexiest application of this content-delivery model, but for IT professionals, they may be a true godsend. By some estimates, software developers buy anywhere from four to seven technology-related books every month. How many reference texts are piled up around your desk right now? A dozen? Fifty? How many of these three-inch-thick doorstops are gathering a fuzzy glaze of dust and potato chip crumbs?

According to analysts, the digital reference book market is about to explode. Some industry watchers are pegging not-too-distant revenues from this emerging service at about $2 billion a year. According to Forrester Research, business-to-business subscription Web sites alone will generate $1 billion annually by 2003. That's a lot of dead presidents, and many (if not most) of the top technical book publishers are taking notice, paring up with service providers, and just basically jumping into this stuff with both feet.

The relevant question then becomes, how good are the current offerings? I thought you'd never ask.,, and netLibrary ( are three of the top service providers in this space, and each offers a very different model of content distribution. I signed up, logged on, and took each one for a test-drive.

  • Number of books available: 2,000
  • Number of publishers: 25
  • Specialized content: How-tos and free Linux publications. Working with companies such as IBM and Cisco to sell other specialized documentation.
  • Content is sold in units of one book at a time.
  • Browsers supported: Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 and higher, Netscape 4.0 and higher, AOL 5.0 and higher.
Figure 1
Figure 1. sells you the books, and then provides searchable access on its Web site.

One of the newest entries into the digital reference book market is licenses books from publishers, sells users digital copies, and then stores the books on its servers. Books accumulate in a personalized virtual bookshelf, and users access their books with a password and a Web browser. Books are stored in enhanced HTML, and they are not downloaded, per se. ( is reportedly evaluating technologies that would enable protected downloads in the future.) Only one user at a time is allowed to view a book from the site.

To buy and access books on the site, you must register. Registration is free, and the procedure is straightforward and simple enough. The shopping experience will be familiar to anyone who's ever bought a book or a CD online. There's a shopping cart icon and a WishList for storing titles that you might like to purchase later. To buy a book, you click on the "Proceed to Checkout" button and cough up your credit card number. The company offers users "frequent buyer" points called ibucks, and there's no limit to the size of your digital library. (You store them on a personal "bookshelf.")

The interface is your basic browser with frames: A frame along the left side of the page displays the hyperlinked table of contents and chapters. Readers can click directly to virtually any page, and bookmark any page or section. You can even copy and paste lines of code.

One feature I particularly like is the preview option. Users can search all available titles (e.g., for a specific line of code) and then preview those sections before deciding to buy anything. In fact, allows users to search a book's entire text before buying it. This "full-text search" means that you can search any page of any ibook within the company's bookstore to find specific information, including diagrams and illustrations.

The site offers a long list of top IT reference books and how-to materials for IT professionals. In addition to the books for sale, users will find a number of free titles from publishers, including the full Linux Documentation Project in 12 digital books. (Most of the free stuff, not surprisingly, is Linux-oriented.) The company sells its digital books at a discount with no additional shipping charges.

Within the text you'll find links to referenced chapters, tables and illustrations, online resources, and the publishers' pages. Anywhere along the way, you can stop and perform a keyword search. Hits are highlighted—a feature I personally like, but one that can be turned off if you prefer. You'll also find bookmarking and annotation capabilities.

The site's current list of subject categories includes:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Business software
  • Certification
  • Culture and technology
  • Database
  • Desktop applications
  • Desktop publishing
  • Distributed computing
  • Documentation
  • Enterprise computing
  • Internet and Web development
  • Hardware
  • Networking/communications
  • Multimedia
  • Operating platforms
  • Programming
  • Reference
  • Business
Its current list of content providers (we used to call them publishers) includes:

  • American Management Association (AMA)
  • DDC Publishing Inc.
  • Delmar Publishers, a division of Thomson Learning
  • Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • IBM Redbooks
  • IBM developerWorks
  • Jamsa Press
  • Maximum Press
  • Muska & Lipman Publishing
  • New Riders Publishing
  • Inc.
  • O'Reilly & Associates Inc.
  • Online Training Solutions Inc.
  • Osborne Media Group (Osborne/McGraw–Hill)
  • Prima Tech, a division of Prima Publishing
  • Que
  • Sams
  • Sybex Inc.
  • John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  • The Apache Group
  • The Coriolis Group
  • Wordware Publishing Inc.
  • Top Floor Publishing
The company's return policy allows users to exchange a digital book for ibucks—i.e., credit—if you ask for it within two hours of the initial purchase. It gives no cash refunds.

Overall, I like this site a lot. There's a bit of setup involved, and you have to do some drilling to get to the books you want at first, but once you're up and running, accessing your information is straightforward and intuitive. One thing I found a bit annoying were the so-called protected pages. ibooks uses "garbled" text to limit your sneak preview of a book you might buy. I understand the concerns of publishers, and the need to secure the content before it's purchased, but in a bookstore I can read the whole thing if I want to.'s buy-and-own model will be very appealing to some users. Although you do have to buy each book to gain access to the material, you don't have to make an ongoing subscription commitment. You can access the books on your bookshelf any time you want them, with no monthly charge.

  • Number of books available: 1,500
  • Number of publishers: 25+
  • Content is provided through subscription.
  • Subscription fees: $24.95 for a single month; $17.95 for multiple months; $199 annually. Prices drop when subscriptions are purchased for multiple seats. A one-week free trial is also available.
  • Browsers supported: According to the site, any browser, but certainly Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 and higher, Netscape 4.0 and higher.
Figure 2
Figure 2. offers subscription access to many of the top IT titles.

The other relatively new kid on the digital-book block is This site utilizes a subscription model, providing a host of IT reference titles for a monthly or yearly fee. When the site launched last September, its customer base was made up primarily of individual users, but an increasing number of large corporations are reportedly signing up for the service.

Here's how that service works: For about $18 a month (or about $200 a year), subscribers get access to the site's library. Books are stored on company servers in an XML-tagged format that allows sophisticated searching. Users access the entire password-protected collection through a browser. Users can print the pages they are reading, but downloading is not allowed. The site permits simultaneous logons from more than one computer or location, but only one user of a password can log on at a time. Although it doesn't sell books, the site does point users to other sites where books may be purchased.

Books are acquired for the site through the recommendation of an editorial board of technologists, authors, and technical journalists. The board advises the company on books and topics for inclusion in the service. According to the company, a board member evaluates each book and prepares a brief synopsis for inclusion in the service. (You'll find a complete list of board members and their biographies on the Web site.)

The current list of publishers represented on the site includes, among many others:

  • Autodesk Press
  • Osborne/McGraw–Hill
  • Course Technology
  • The MIT Press
  • Que
  • Element K Press (formerly ZD Journals)
  • Waveside Publishing
  • Artech House
  • O'Reilly
  • John Wiley & Sons
  • Morgan Kaufmann Publishers
  • OnWord Press
  • Digital Press
  • Peachpit Press
  • Sams
  • ZD Journals
  • Computing McGraw–Hill
  • Sybex
  • Delmar Publishers
  • Muska & Lipman Publishing
  • Prima Publishing
One feature that sets this site apart is content. In addition to books, the site gives subscribers access to every new issue of 28 Ziff–Davis journals. I predict that it won't be long before other books-only sites begin to include searchable periodicals content.

The site's current list of subject categories includes:

  • Databases
  • Desktop and office applications
  • Enterprise computing
  • Graphic design
  • Hardware
  • Networks and protocols
  • Operating systems
  • Programming
  • Web development
  • Business and culture
I loved this site. It's got a clean look and an efficient search engine. Navigating the content of a book is an intuitive experience, through hyperlinked tables of contents. And each book includes all graphics and charts. I also liked the synopses you get when you click on a book title.

The My Bookshelf feature is particularly attractive. Rather than always combing the contents of the entire collection, users can stash often-used books for more efficient searches. The site also includes a collaboration interface for sharing comments and sections of books, and supports online book reviews by industry peers and colleagues.

I'm not sure I love the subscription model. And I'm not all that comfortable with the site's editorial board choosing the books I can access. (It's not that they're not qualified, I'm just pigheaded that way.) Still, I can see the advantages of automatically updated content. In fact, I'd go so far as to predict that this content distribution model is the one that will survive, at least for reference materials.


  • Number of books available: 2,000+
  • Number of publishers: approximately 250
  • Access to public collection is free; access to private collection is through local library or company.
  • Proprietary software: eBook Reader for reading "checked out" digital books offline.
  • Browsers supported: Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 and higher, Netscape 4.0 and higher.
Figure 3
Figure 3. netLibrary's eBook Reader gives users offline access to "checked out" books.

If the buy-and-own model activates your inner skinflint, and the subscription model triggers some long dormant claustrophobia, I've got a digital reference content distribution model for you. How does free sound?

The netLibrary site provides yet another content delivery model: the online library. Users of this service "check out" reference books as they would in a traditional library. netLibrary members have unlimited, free access to an extensive collection of public-domain digital books.

netLibrary maintains three distinct digital book collections: Books in netLibrary's Public Collection are available to all users, free of charge. Books in the Library Collection are published, copyrighted books that have been purchased by a library and made available to its patrons. Books in the Private Collection are published, copyrighted books owned by companies or other organizations, available only to their members.

The netLibrary site also facilitates sales of private-collection digital books by online booksellers and retailers. Users can access Owned eBooks, which are individual copies of digital books stored on the netLibrary site.

The site's digital libraries are maintained in HTML format and rendered on the fly when accessed. If a library or organization has purchased 10 copies of one title, that means only 10 people at a time may view that title.

One very nice feature of this service is the eBook Reader. You have to download the software from the site (it's free), but then you can store and read the books you check out offline. If you're about to spend several hours on an airplane, for example, you can download a book and take it with you.

Once you find the book you're looking for, you have the option of viewing it or "borrowing" it. If you borrow it, you have exclusive rights to it during the checkout period, just as you would with a hard-copy library book. The books are automatically checked back in to the netLibrary collection when the checkout period expires. When one of the books in the netLibrary collection is checked out, the system displays a message indicating when it'll be available again.

Users can copy or print single pages from the netLibrary collection (that's part of the so-called fair-use doctrine), but the software won't let you print out a whole book.

I found the netLibrary online interface to be clunkier than either of the other digital book sites, but not horribly so. However, discovering how I might access the system was quite daunting. To access the system, you must register and enter a login name and password, but it's not readily apparent exactly how you're supposed to do that. I had to call the company for help setting up an account for this review. Apparently, users of the Library Collection have to call their local libraries to find out whether they have access.

Once I had the account set up, and the eBook Reader downloaded (it took about 20 minutes through a 56K modem connection), I definitely preferred netLibrary's offline display to the others in this review. It provided the expected hyperlinked text, keyword search capabilities, and other features but also a zoom feature and a highlighter, both of which I found to be very useful.

Review in a Nutshell


  • Hundreds of relevant titles available at a mouse click.
  • Searchable text: Find the answers you're looking for buried in many fat tomes quickly.
  • Big discounts on purchases and no shipping costs.
  • Access to the books, even the ones you buy, right away—no waiting for the UPS man.
  • Many sites allow extensive previews before buying.
  • Access from any machine with an Internet connection.
  • Digital books are not books: You need a computer, an Internet connection, and a power supply to use them.
  • Not every title is available in digital form.
  • Some interfaces are still not elegant.
  • Some pricing models may be a bit expensive for individuals and smaller organizations.
  • In many cases, you still have to buy the whole book, not just the information you need.
Bottom Line:
Great solution for IT pros facing career-long need for regularly updated reference materials. Also useful for companies that want to provide their people with consistent access to a broad range of reference materials, without filling up their offices with dead trees. The current offerings of online digital reference books are varied, feature-rich, and chockablock with the top publications in the field. All the sites listed here are well worth a test-drive.