Who's reading War and Peace on a laptop? Who's reading Animal Farm on a PDA? Who's tired of dusty old books? Anyone?

I can understand why few people want to read anything on an electronic device. I've downloaded several books from my local library to read on my Palm TX PDA, and while I like being able to carry around reading material on a small device and avoid a trip to the library, I'm annoyed by battery-life issues, DRM difficulties, reading on a tiny screen, and the fact that I have to read something that's beaming a light at my eyeballs. There's also the fact that much of the e-book software out there has been pretty lousy – especially Adobe's Reader.

But today, Adobe will release a free beta of Digital Editions, its new application for reading and organising electronic books and other digital publications. I got a briefing a few days ago, and I think it addresses at least some of these issues.

Built on a Flash platform, the software's best feature, to me, is its ability to adapt documents to your display size. So, if your eyesight isn't so good, you can bump up the size to exactly what you need, and the document reflows the text automatically.

Authors can embed OpenType fonts; users will be able to change fonts to ones they prefer, although that feature will be hidden at launch. You can add bookmarks and other annotations (but again, not until it's out of beta), and share your reading lists with others (or with yourself, if you use multiple computers or devices). Great, more social networking – except that you probably can't actually lend someone that great e-book you just read, for fear of the RIAA kicking down your door.

The rep I spoke to said that Digital Editions will be "lightweight" (2.5MB, including Flash Player 9.0), and that it will use a new hosted content protection service that's based on Adobe's LiveCycle Policy Server for digital rights management. In other words, it should perform better than the existing Reader, and copyright protections should be less of a pain to deal with.

Fans of Mobipocket Reader (myself included) will point out that that software already has many of those features. Adobe's response is that Mobipocket is a proprietary format, whereas Digital Editions is based on an open format, the OeBPS (Open eBook Publication Structure Specification).

For now, you'll have to try it out on a Windows PC, because the Mac version isn't ready yet (Adobe says it'll be out shortly), and the software for PDAs and other devices won't appear until the product ships in the first half of 2007. So forget about tackling War and Peace on your PDA – if indeed you were thinking about that.