Foxit Software is hot on the heels of Amazon.com and Sony in developing an e-book reader that quickly and accurately renders widely-used PDF files.
The thin and light eSlick device, on display this week at the Cebit trade show, is Foxit's first foray into hardware. Foxit has specialized in creating lightweight and fast desktop and mobile applications for viewing PDF (Portable Document Format) files, a format created by Adobe Systems and adopted as an international standard in July 2008.
That work could give Foxit an edge on its competitors, since some users have complained about how Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Digital Book Reader handle PDFs.
The eSlick's software is based on the company's desktop and mobile applications, which Foxit President Eugene Y. Xiong said have been developed with an emphasis on a small, high-performing code base.
Emphasizing PDF performance has other advantages, as it's an easy way for publishers to get their content on an e-reader, Xiong said.
"For a lot of publishers, PDF is a standard format if they want to print books, magazines or newspapers," Xiong said. "Printers only accept a PDF version. It's kind of natural for them to publish an e-book."
To view a PDF on the Kindle 2, a user has to e-mail a PDF -- as well as other file types such as Microsoft Word and ".txt" files -- to Amazon, which converts the file so that it can be seen on the device. Amazon warns that complex PDFs may still not render right on the Kindle 2, the latest version.
"PDF is the richest kind of format," Xiong said. "If you convert a PDF to some other kind of document, you are going to lose some information."
The Sony Digital Book Reader will handle PDFs, but offers only two font sizing options, small and medium. The eSlick has menu options to change the font of a PDF to 12, 18, 24, 30 or 36 pixels.
Still, aside from PDF performance, the eSlick lags behind its competitors in many ways, and Xiong admits that the hardware even in the latest version is "very limited." It has no Wi-Fi or other connectivity and no keyboard. But it does have an MP3 player.
Foxit sold out of a product run of 1,000 devices made available through its Web site in January, mostly to customers in the U.S., Xiong said. Another run of 1,000 is under way, and Foxit is taking preorders on its Web site with a US$15 deposit.
But Xiong said Foxit will add connectivity to the eSlick; adding the wireless chip is easy, but the software has to be developed to run it. Also, a wireless chip should not add too much to the eSlick's price, currently $259.99.
Foxit is working with hardware manufacturers to come up with different eSlick models, which could in the future include a trackball for navigation as well as a keyboard, Xiong said. A new device will likely come out before the end of the year, he said.
The problem right now is the eSlick's grayscale screen, which shows text by reflecting light. There's no backlight. The Vizplex screen from the company E Ink is the same one used for the Kindle.
Since only E Ink makes the screen, there's a four- to six-week lead time to get more screens, which has held up production, Xiong said. Foxit is out of stock now; Amazon was held up by similar delays, Xiong said.
Foxit has recently updated the eSlick's software. The device will now hibernate after a page is displayed, which extends battery life. Xiong said the battery will last for about 7,000 page turns. The eSlick uses an embedded Linux operating system and a Samsung S3C2440 400 Mhz processor designed by Arm.
The eSlick has 128MB of internal memory. PDF as well as text documents can be loaded on it via 2GB SD (Secure Digital) card, which is included with the device. It also has a USB 2.0 port.
Xiong envisions partnering with publishers to create a Web service that can deliver documents to the eSlick. Foxit hasn't settled on what kind of DRM (digital rights management) format the eSlick will support. Publishers will want that in order to protect their intellectual property, he said.
As Foxit develops the eSlick further, Xiong foresees giving Amazon and others a run for their money, providing an alternate way for publishers to sell their content directly to consumers.
"We've already been contacted by a number of independent content providers, not only e-book sellers but also publishers and magazines," Xiong said.