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  •   The Medium Is the Monica
    By Mike Musgrove
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    March 19, 1999

    The neatest thing about reading on a Rocket eBook is that nobody around you at the Metro station or the café knows what you're doing. People see you gazing intently at a small, glowing slate, occasionally depressing a button with your thumb. People stare—they think you're a busy guy, perhaps, or deep in thought. What nobody suspects is that you're actually reading Monica's Story, trashy bestseller and the first simultaneous release of a name-brand work in "eBook" and hardcover form.

    The Rocket eBook is a piece of hardware built exclusively for reading books. Its memory contains enough storage space to hold 10 novels (or about 4,000 pages). To answer everybody's first question, yes, the screen is sharp enough—you can stare at it for the same amount of time you'd stare at any other book. You can underline, insert bookmarks and stick notes in by tapping the keys on a tiny onscreen keyboard. The battery is durable enough and made it through 75 percent of Monica's tale of lust in the Oval Office before needing a recharge.

    NuvoMedia's slogan for the eBook is the rather Microsoft-ish "Where will you take it?"—but the more relevant question is "Where will you leave it?" You can take the eBook anywhere you'd take an ordinary book, but, unlike a regular book, this is not the type of thing you'll want to leave lying on your car seat if you have to park anywhere near the 9:30 club. It's a handsome enough piece of hardware, but with its stylish leather case I felt like I was carrying a purse around (alert Jerry Falwell!).

    Here's how the eBook shopping experience goes: Head to barnesandnoble. com (Amazon.com does not offer Rocket-compatible books) and browse through the titles the site has available in "electronic format." When you find one you like, enter your credit card numbers, go through the usual checkout process and a few minutes later an e-mail from barnesandnoble.com brings the Web address from which you can download your book. (Monica's Story was about 400 kilobytes.) Park your eBook in its cradle, which connects this hardware to your computer via a com port, and your new "book" is ready for your perusal moments later.

    Comparing this to the more popular online book-buying option, you're paying nothing for delivery and you're getting the book almost right away. For a paperback or hardcover book at the same online bookseller, you'd pay $3.95 in shipping and handling for one book (standard UPS) and have it delivered to you in three to six business days. If you're going to buy 125 books or so, one at a time, you'd be spending enough in shipping and handling to eventually justify the eBook's cost—but only if your tastes match what's available. A visit to barnesandnoble.com on Tuesday turned up only 362 eBook titles. If the eBook or a product like it ever gets cheap enough, this could definitely fill a niche: beach reading, airport books—books that you only read to kill time. Books that you would only ever read once and don't particularly want taking up space in your bookcase—books like Monica's Story, in other words. Alas, you don't get to gape at the pictures that the hardcover version comes with.

    Bookstores have a lot to worry about these days, certainly, but it doesn't take much insight to conclude that the Rocket eBook isn't one of them just yet. Me, I'm going to save my money and buy another bookcase instead.

    Rocket eBook, NuvoMedia; $499, Win 95

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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