Byline: KAREN DENT
READERS have been able to read virtual newspapers, magazines and e-books online for years now but new technology coming on to the market is widely predicted to turn virtual books from a niche interest to a mass market phenomenon.
Key to readers' changing attitudes is likely to be the slew of hand-held equipment - known as 'tablets' - that are becoming available and will allow people to read e-books on the bus or the Metro as easily as the traditional paper versions.
Leading the way is Apple's new iPad, a touchscreen device unveiled last month after much excited anticipation among technology addicts and entrepreneurs by the US company's chief executive Steve Job. He said the gadget, which allows the user to read books, surf the net, watch films and play games, fell into a third category between smartphones and laptops.
"It''s the best browsing experience you''ve had," he boasted at the gadget's launch.
Although the iPad is not the first tablet device to hit the market, it is the one that is currently causing the most excitement in the industry. It is also the most expensive.
James Rutherford, who runs Newcastle-doesn't add a lot of value but the iPad has an interactive element."
Amazon's Kindle e-reader arrived in the UK late last year and downloads books from the Amazon website at the push of a button. It includes software that can read the book aloud to the listener in their choice of male or female voice.
Although the Kindle is linked up to Amazon's bookselling might, Apple has struck a deal with a number of major publishing houses including Penguin and Macmillan to create a specialist iBooks store so that readers can download what they fancy straight to their iPad.
Industry watchers are now predicting that iBooks will take off among readers in the same way that iTunes grabbed the attention of music fans.
Rachael Ogden, managing director of Newcastle-based publishing firm Inpress, is herself very impressed with the device.
"I've just bought a Sony Reader but I'm hanging on for Apple iPad. It's launching here in March," she said.
"The Sony Reader, it's a bit clunky. It's about the size of a book, you take it with you and it's lighter and thinner than a book.
"If you're going on holiday and you don't want to take suitcases full of books it's useful."
Ms Ogden believes that the added extras that e-books will increasingly be able to offer will help them to prise readers away from traditional books.
"More e-books are being developed with interactivity now," she said. "We'll start to see cookery books that might link to the cook's website or link to video links."
Inpress, which sells to bookshops on behalf of 40 independent publishers, is itself gearing up to stake its claim for a place in the e-book marketplace.
Although the company already has sample chapters available to download from its website, it is aiming to have 60 e-books ready for readers by this spring. …