County library officials eagerly offered patrons a new service in February: For no charge, readers could download more than 700 digital audiobooks to listen to on their computers and portable players.
Such books, library director Edwin S. Clay III said, "allow you to take your reading anywhere."
Apple's iPod does not use Windows Media Player, as the audiobooks are designed to do.
But the library system inadvertently was caught in a clash of competing software that has left many patrons unhappy because they cannot use the service. Owners of the top-selling digital player, the iPod made by Apple Computer, cannot download books off the library's Web site because the county's service is incompatible with Apple's proprietary software.
"I was taken aback by the vehemence with which iPod users reacted," said library spokeswoman Lois Kirkpatrick.
One of those iPod owners, David C. Cooper of Centreville, said he was interested in the library's digital book service but was dismayed to learn the library could not make the downloads available for iPods.
The library launched the service after signing a one-year, $50,000 contract with Colorado-based NetLibrary, a division of the nonprofit Online Computer Library Center. NetLibrary partners with Recorded Books LLC to provide the service.
Patrons who want to download the audiobooks to their personal computers and, in turn, their digital audio players must use hardware that runs Microsoft's Windows Media Player, the only software that is compatible with NetLibrary's audiobooks.
NetLibrary spokesman Bob Murphy said that officials at the nonprofit organization would like to see the iPod become a supported device at some point, in part to boost its membership. "It's something we will continue to look at, but there is nothing imminent. As a membership organization, we want to make this available to as many users as possible," he said.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has contributed to the Online Computer Library Center through his charitable group, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. However, Murphy said, the donation was used for an entirely separate program and had nothing to do with the fact that NetLibrary's audiobook downloads work only with the Windows Media Player.
Many Windows-compatible personal audio devices are available from companies such as Dell and Samsung. Microsoft Windows is by far the most common operating system on personal computers, according to industry figures. Apple's iPod reigns supreme in the portable audio device market, however, with more than 8.2 million sold last year. The pocket-size electronic device can hold hundreds of hours of digital audio data.
Cooper said the Fairfax library could have explored other options. He said that Audible Inc., a New Jersey-based company and the industry leader in audiobooks, also makes digital audiobooks available online at www.audible.com. The company's files work with Apple software, Cooper said.
But Audible.com spokesman Jonathan Korzen said the company is not currently making audiobooks available on the Internet through public libraries. Though some local library systems around the country can provide iPods that have been pre-loaded with books from Audible's catalog, Apple users who want to download books online with their home computers are, for now, limited to those they pay for on Apple's online iTunes store.
Another Ohio-based audiobook company, OverDrive Inc. (overdrive.com), also makes its selections available to public libraries solely on the Windows platform.
Kirkpatrick, the Fairfax library spokeswoman, said the library was limited to the available choices -- all of them Windows-based -- to provide the service. She said that NetLibrary officials suggested she tell disgruntled iPod users that " 'Apple could, if they wanted, make the iPod with the ability to recognize Windows Media files . . . but they have chosen not to do so for the time being. We regret this and hope the situation will change.' "