updated 2/17/2005 6:38:03 PM ET 2005-02-17T23:38:03

Over the past couple of years, the cell phone has emerged as a sound system, a video game player and a TV screen. Now, it could become the latest outlet for books.

Random House, the country’s leading trade book publisher, announced Thursday that it had purchased a “significant minority stake” in VOCEL, a San Diego-based company that describes itself as a provider of “premium-branded applications for mobile phones.”

Random House also announced that it has reached licensing arrangements with VOCEL to provide cell phone access to the publisher’s Living Language foreign-language study programs and Prima Games video game strategy guides.

“You have a whole generation of consumers, perhaps more than a generation, who are never more than 10 feet from their cell phones, including when they shower,” said Richard Sarnoff, president of Random House Ventures, an investment subsidiary of Random House, Inc. “Increasingly, cell phones are becoming an appliance for entertainment and education.”

Cell phone texts have already caught on in Germany, South Korea and Japan, where a cell-novel became so popular that it was turned into a feature film, “Deep Love.” But don’t expect the next Tom Clancy thriller to pop up on your phone. In the United States, Sarnoff said that phones, like e-books, are currently better suited for information than for narrative.

“The screens are inappropriate for that kind of sustained reading,” he said. “That’s a ‘maybe, someday’ discussion. We’ll keep an eye on that area, and if something happens ... we’ll certainly respond.”

Random House already has dabbled in the phone market. VOCEL is currently working on a line of SAT study guides with The Princeton Review, an educational services company in which Random House has a minority ownership. Sarnoff spoke of using phones to transmit dictionary definitions or as sources of language training.

“You can have both text and an audio component,” he said. “When you learn a language, for instance, you can have the word appear on your screen and also hear how it’s pronounced.”

Other publishers had mixed reactions. Penguin Group USA and St. Martin’s Press said they had no current plans to invest in phone texts. But Oxford University Press said it was interested, and Simon & Schuster “has been testing the waters,” according to spokesman Adam Rothberg.

“We’re talking to all kinds of people about it,” he said. “It’s obviously one of the next frontiers in the e-book world.”

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