Exclusive: Pocket PC glitch means few readable e-books

High-tech illiteracy? A missing decryption key limits the number of titles that can be read by a Pocket PC handheld

On Tuesday, Microsoft and a group of publishing heavyweights are set to announce a small step for technology -- the creation of a new online electronic bookstore -- that they hope will be a giant leap forward in the advancement of electronic books.

But a missing piece of copyright protection software for Pocket PCs could hinder the store's success, at least in the early stages.

The announcement of the partnership with publishers Simon and Schuster, Time Warner and retailer Barnesandnoble.com coincides with the release of the final version of Microsoft's eBook Reader for Windows PCs, with which PC users will be able to read downloaded e-books.

The absent software affects Pocket PC-based units that shipped with what Microsoft is calling version 1.0 of its eBook Reader.

As a result, not all e-books will be initially available to owners of Pocket PCs, the people analysts say are the most likely consumers to first visit the new e-book "store". While the desktop version of the eBook Reader will offer a full set of features and support for the highest levels of security, the Pocket PC version does not.

The eBook Reader that has shipped on Pocket PCs since their introduction in April was, in fact, a prototype, Microsoft officials acknowledged last week.

While Microsoft is expected to address the issue soon, with at minimum a software patch, users of Pocket PC-based units are essentially out of luck when it comes to being able to read certain e-books on their handhelds.

"Anyone who bought a Pocket PC with the intention of reading e-books on it is totally screwed," said a source in the electronic book industry, which asked for anonymity. It may not be quite that bad. But potential e-book purchasers with Pocket PCs will be out of luck when it comes to reading books with higher levels of security.

Microsoft officials told ZDNet News that its eBook Reader has three different levels of copyright protection: one to authenticate a document and prohibit users from altering the content, another that labels a book with its owner's name, and a third that prohibits anyone but the owner from viewing the book.

The Pocket PC eBook Reader lacks support for the final level of copyright protection.

This means that e-book novels, which use the maximum amount of security, will not be readable on Pocket PCs until Microsoft delivers its update or a new version of the reader.

According to Jeff Alger, product manager at Microsoft, the Pocket PC eBook Reader is the version that has existed since January. The omission of the third level of security on the Pocket PC was caused by a scheduling conflict.

The Pocket PCs had to go out before the eBook Reader, with its three levels of protection, was available.

Alger could not say when the final level of protection would be available for the reader on Pocket PCs. The reader runs in ROM, which makes the upgrade complicated. He also stressed the significance of the Pocket PC for the overall success of the eBook Reader.

"We realise that the Pocket PC is one of the first places users will use the reader and we're working very hard on a fix," said Alger.

Adam Rotherberg, spokesperson for Simon and Schuster, did not seem so worried.

"We're not as concerned about this because of the small share that Pocket PCs have, but when we got into this business we knew that things could change very rapidly," said Rotherberg.

Tuesday's announcement will be the first such e-book store for Microsoft, though Barnesandnoble.com has been offering free e-books for Pocket PCs for some time.

Published reports Monday said the e-book store would allow consumers to purchase and download e-books as well as electronically purchase books that are then printed out.

Tuesday's announcement will be the first such e-books content distribution deal for Microsoft, but other similar agreements are expected later this year.

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