Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Electronic books and the future of publishing

Posted in Articles, My publications, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on May 25, 2002

Gutenberg’s innovations in the printing technology revolutionised medieval Europe’s ability to share expertise and increase knowledge. As we begin 21st century, further revolutionary change is possible through the impact of electronic books. This technology is already mature enough for clinicians and academics, even though the UK medical publishing industry has not yet caught on.

The Printing Press
The nations of 1450’s Europe were undergoing a massive increase in complexity, with developments in science, commerce, law and warfare. In many cases, the bottleneck for further development was the ability of scribes to produce written materials. No matter how many new entrants to the profession, society still needed more.
Enter Johannes Gutenberg – inventor, goldsmith… and businessman. Like any good businessman, Gutenberg was constantly on the lookout for market opportunities. He diagnosed the market’s need for mass produced writing. Like any good businessman, Gutenberg borrowed money to research a solution for this gap in the market. He produced the printing press, with innovations in the use of movable metal type. And like any good businessman, he was good at marketing. His first publication was thus the bible, the world’s first, and still greatest, bestseller. But Gutenberg had an eye on where the real money was – Indulgences. Indulgences were rich people’s way of buying forgiveness from God for their sins, and the Church’s way of funding religious wars. Gutenberg wanted to mass produce these indulgences for the Church, in effect a license to print money.
Sadly for Gutenberg, he never got that far in his business model as he was unable to pay off his creditors in time. His press and patents were confiscated. But he had still unleashed a revolution.
Modern Publishing
Future historians may decide that Harry Potter was the pinnacle of publishing in the 20th century. The book that became a brand reminded millions of children of the joys of reading and contributed to mass literacy. To me, however, the contents of my college library represent the pinnacle.
As an undergraduate medical student, I was initially frustrated by the books held in this library. None of the major textbooks that I needed were available when I needed them most. Eventually, I grudgingly bought these textbooks, and made peace with the library. I was then free to explore its other books with an open mind. And these books were obscure. Really obscure.
One book, for example, was devoted to the six muscles of the eye. Not vision, not the eye, but the six muscles of the eye. Another book was entitled Queuing Systems. Queuing theory, I discovered, is an expanding science, with applications from computer networks to aircraft control.
Each year, the publishing industry produces thousands more such books, ever larger, ever more specialised, ever more obscure. Yet every year, the industry’s cost-effectiveness manages to make money from such books, allowing further investment. The miracle of modern publishing is that it is cost-effective to produce obscure texts.
Electronic Publishing
With electronic books, there is the possibility of further bringing down the costs of publishing. And the price of handheld electronic book readers is also coming down. Prices are already low enough to allow anyone to publish to everyone, for reading everywhere. The UK medical publishing industry has held back in taking advantage of the new possibilities, waiting to see the results of the US experience.
However, members of the BMIS community can still push ahead with using the technology. Think about it. You can easily and cheaply produce an electronic book that contains articles, lectures, protocols, papers or any other information you want to carry with you and share with colleagues. And the cost of distributing the content is close to zero. Put it on a floppy, email it a colleague, post it on your institution’s website – the knowledge is available for others to read and use. Move beyond Harry Potter and continue Guttenberg’s good work.
Published in issue 35 of Biomedical Informatics Today (BMiT)
in the Spring of 2002. BMiT is the official newsletter of the
British Medical Informatics Society.

Publishing your own electronic book

Posted in Articles, My publications, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on May 25, 2002

There are three steps to publishing your won electronic book. Firstly, you must create the text. Next, the text should be converted into electronic book format. Finally, the electronic book should be distributed. The first step is by far the most difficult, but involves the same technology you already deal with every day. Any word processor will do, but the ideal medium to work with is an HTML editor. Superficially, this is because all electronic book converters are HTML-ready, while only a few are Microsoft Word-savvy (and none work with other word processing programs). More importantly, however, the principles of good hyperlinks underlie the design of a good electronic book. Making a web page from a long text document is best done by splitting the document into digestible chunks, and creating hyperlinks between them. Otherwise, the result is a frustrating amount of scrolling when reading the web version. The problems of scrolling are further magnified in electronic books, as handheld computers have limited screen space.

Having designed the set of web pages that constitute the book, the next step is to convert them into a single document – an electronic book. So far, there are many players in this market, each with competing formats. This is unfortunate, but it does not mean that you have to commit to one format. As mentioned above, all the software vendors depend on HTML. Furthermore the conversion process takes minutes (and can be automated) meaning that you can easily publish your document for any and all formats. Simply drag the web pages into the window of the conversion program, and press the publish button.
There are four major players in the market to choose from: Adobe, Microsoft, MobiPocket and Palm. It is not yet clear who the winner will be. Palm, through its acquisition of PeanutPress, has the highest earnings from book sales. However even these earnings were only just over $11 million last year, meaning the market is in its infancy. Adobe’s Acrobat reader has an installed user base of 140 million worldwide. However the vast majority of these are on PCs, and Adobe’s handheld computer reader software has yet to gain acceptance due to its usability. The Microsoft Reader is the default reader in Pocket PCs, and Windows XP, giving it a growing user base. However this still excludes a lot of customers including the 70% of handheld computer owners that use a Palm-powered device.
For many, however, the most attractive solution may well be MobiPocket. A small and innovative French company, it is expanding at a rate that has surprised its competitors. Firstly, it makes its reader software freely available for all handheld computing platforms. No other company matches this yet. Furthermore its publishing software is free for personal use. Upgrading to the Standard or  Professional versions allows faster and more powerful document creation.
For these reasons, we choose MobiPocket to deploy Medical Approaches.
The final step in the publishing your electronic book is distribution. If you don?t want to encrypt your document, then distribution is easy. Post it on a website, email it to colleagues, or place it on disks. For most cases, this is the ideal easy and affordable solution.
If you would like to sell the book, or at least control its distribution, then encryption is necessary. Encryption costs money either in the form of an expensive software suite or licensing fees. Thus it?s usually reserved for commercial texts. In addition the encryption allows quite a sophisticated degree of control, including restricting the book to a single handheld computer, and blocking all attempts to copy it to another computer. The block is in place even if the other computer is owned by the same user who paid for the book. This policy has proved controversial, with most users resenting the restrictions. In the USA, such issues are being debated in, where else, the courts.
It will take time to resolve the issues of competing multiple formats and intellectual copyright controversy. But it is already possible to make good use of the technology to make specialised medical texts available to all. So, the next time someone discusses making their lecture, paper or textbook available to students or colleagues – think of using electronic book technology.
Published in issue 35 of Biomedical Informatics Today (BMiT)
in the Spring of 2002. BMiT is the official newsletter of the
British Medical Informatics Society.