SPOTLIGHT – E-READERS
Welcome to this latest SPOTLIGHT post, where we focus on one particular subject affecting the present and future of the news media industry.
In this post our attention turns to e-readers – hand-held reading gadgets described by the New York Times as like a prop from science fiction.
Might sound hyperbolic but here’s an oft-cited example from the 1968 sci-fi novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey:
“Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications.
“Here he was, far out in space ... yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased.
“The text was updated automatically on every hour ... one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.”
[Picture from Infomaniac - Behind the News]
Sound familiar? In 2009 the fantasy has become reality (‘cept the spacey bit) and electronic readers are beloved by many of the tech world’s early adopters.
But they’re still fairly unknown in the UK and have yet to really break the mainstream market in the US (although the Kindle did make Oprah Winfrey’s list of favourite things in 2008).
However, lots of media commentators are already excited about their potential for newspapers and are predicting that the e-reader could represent the future iTunes moment for the news industry.
In this post we’ll be taking a look at some of the current market leaders and how they are working with newspapers to offer paid-for content.
And we’ll examine some of the arguments for the devices becoming an ideal way for newspapers to make money from their content in the digital age.
We’ll also see how devices such as smartphones and Mobile Internet Devices (MID) could provide an alternative e-reading platform.
Then we’ll take a look at predictions for the future of e-readers and consider which manufacturers and publishers may enter the market soon.
Finally, we’ll offer links for further reading and to reviews of some of the main hardware devices.
What Is An E-Reader?
E-book readers, e-readers, eReaders – these terms are all used by various companies for their products, whether it’s the actual piece of hardware on which documents are read or the software that facilitates their display.
For ease of understanding, we’ll refer to them as e-readers and by this we mean a portable device on which users can read electronic versions of books, newspapers etc (software will simply be referred to as e-reader software).
At the moment the best known types of e-readers (Kindle, Sony Reader, iRex iLiad) use the electronic paper display from E Ink Corp, which its creators claim has a “paper-like contrast appearance”.
The idea is that these devices provide users with the closest experience to reading actual paper as possible, so they have none of the backlight and glare of standard LCD computer screens and can be read in bright sunlight.
On the downside, the technology is pretty expensive and E-Ink displays cannot yet produce colour or moving images.
So, let’s have a look at some of the most popular models on the market and see what they have to offer.
Amazon Kindle and Kindle 2
Now, the Kindle is not yet sold in the UK - although super keen customers have been importing them - but it still merits top billing here as it’s the best known e-reader and is working with a lot of newspapers (including British ones) to deliver their content.
Launched in 2007, the Kindle uses a wireless 3G network with Whispernet technology so users can download books, newspapers and blogs without being connected to a computer.
It made TIME magazine’s Top Ten Gadgets of 2008 (it was a late launch in 2007!) and it is estimated that about 500,000 were sold by the start of this year.
The latest model – Kindle 2 – hit the market earlier this year and the below video taken at its showcase launch by Gearlog provides a useful demonstration of its main features and shows how newspapers are displayed.
Kindle users who subscribe to a newspaper pay a monthly subscription fee (from about £4-£10) and then get new issues automatically downloaded to their device each day.
And there are plenty of titles which have signed up to this deal, including the Independent, Financial Times and The Times from the UK.
Other non-American newspapers available for subscription on the Kindle are Le Monde, the Irish Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine and the Shanghai Daily.
As for American newspapers and magazines, each month seems to bring news of more signing up to deliver their news via Kindle, including USA Today, Newsweek and The Oklahoman (full list available on Amazon).
And just this week, USA Today also signed up to have its blogs and online communities made available for Kindle subscribers.
Most of the buzz surrounding e-readers and their potential for the newspaper industry is related in particular to the Kindle 2, which has introduced some new features proving popular with its reporter users.
For Poynter Online blogger Amy Gahran, it’s the automatic text-to-speech function that offers a service she calls a “news radio”.
She writes: “The automated text-to-speech reader is a bit flat for fiction, narrative and essays that require significant emotional or rhetorical inflection - but it’s great for news.”
Gahran adds that “it’s pretty cool to be able to have stories from WSJ.com read aloud to me while I cook my veggie pesto omelet”.
The other innovation from Kindle 2 creating a lot of noise in the tech blogosphere is the introduction of Whispersync technology, enabling users to switch between different Kindle devices and keep the same page etc.
Making this functionality even more exciting for e-reader fans is that it was shortly followed by the launch of a Kindle application for the iPhone.
This free software means Kindle owners can read a book on their main device at home, then pick up where they left off on their iPhone while on the move.
Want to know more about Kindle 2 and its new functions? Hear it straight from the horse’s mouth in the below video, which shows Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos demonstrating the product and defending its price tag (£250).
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||M - Th 11p / 10c|
The latest rumour surrounding Amazon is that the company is looking to launch a bigger-screen version of the Kindle in a bid to attract more magazine and newspaper publishers.
People who claim to have seen the new e-reader told the Wall Street Journal (subscription needed to access full story) that the large-screen Kindle could be out by the end of this year.
(See a summary of the WSJ article on paidcontent.org.)
Plastic Logic Reader
The e-reader device developed by Plastic Logic may not have reached the market yet (selected launch later this year, general release 2010) but it has already caused a stir among media types.
This might have something to do with its look – unlike the Kindle, it has not been developed primarily as an e-book reader but rather as a business document reader.
So the Plastic Logic Reader is bigger, thinner and lighter than its e-reader rivals – as shown in the below demo.
This e-reader may be thin but its makers claim it is particularly robust as it’s made entirely of plastic, and engineer Dean Baker demonstrated this claim to the BBC with a punch to the screen.
Put all this together and you’ve got an e-reader that attracted a lot of interest from newspaper publishers when the prototype did the rounds at trade shows last year.
Plastic Logic chief executive Richard Archuleta told the New York Times: “Even though we have positioned this for business documents, newspapers is what everyone asks for.”
And the firm has already sealed the deal on several content partnership deals with newspapers, including USA Today and the Financial Times.
Plastic Logic has also signed a deal with LibreDigital, which supplies digital content for newspaper publishers including Hearst Corp.
But the major one to watch will be Plastic Logic’s trial with the Detroit Media Partnership (DMP).
As part of the project, subscribers to e-newspaper content from DMP will not have to buy their own devices but will instead have the option to lease the Plastic Logic Reader through the subscription deal.
The success of such a scheme could help e-reader makers answer one of the main accusations from their detractors – that they are too expensive for the mainstream market.
iRex iLiad Reader & Digital Reader
Dutch company iRex Technologies is the maker of the iLiad Reader Book Edition and 2nd Edition, which are available in the UK from the iRex online shop for £400-£550.
iRex also offers a large format device with its new Digital Reader, which is designed with business users in mind and has a 10-inch display which can show A4 documents.
The A5-sized 2nd Edition has wireless internet connectivity like the Kindle and allows users to write electronic notes in the margins of documents.
The below video shows how newspapers are displayed on the 2nd Edition and gives an insight into some of the functionality (no sound though).
From 2007 it has offered a newspaper subscription with French publication Les Echos, in a move described by iRex as one which will “set the trend in the newspaper industry”.
According to the New York Times, Les Echos provides its iLiad subscribers with a daily edition as well as up to ten updated versions of the paper throughout the course of the day.
In March 2008, NRC Handelsblad became the first Dutch newspaper to sign up to delivery via an electronic paper device when it completed a content deal with the iLiad.
And the makers of the iLiad have promised that more content partnerships are on their way in the future.
It sounds like good news for the iLiad on the continent, but iRex has suffered a setback in the UK recently after Borders announced that it will stop selling the devices due to poor sales.
According to the Independent, “customers baulked at the high price” of the iLiad, so Borders is looking to stock a different reader by the end of this month.
Still in the pilot stage, the Read&Go device from telecoms group Orange is described by its makers as a “mobile newspaper kiosk”.
The e-paper technology device is purpose-built for displaying newspapers and boasts wifi and 3G connectivity.
In a bid to test both the device and the potential appeal of e-newspapers, Read&Go was trialled last year in collaboration with seven French newspapers, including Le Monde, Le Parisien, Les Echos and L’Equipe.
The trial produced some promising results for the newspapers and the executives shared some of their findings at a conference in Paris.
Editors Weblog reports that researchers found people spent as much time reading content on the e-reader as they would on a printed newspaper, thus enhancing the appeal for advertisers.
This leads the Editors Weblog to conclude that a limited release is the likeliest next step for the Read&Go, but no word from Orange as yet.
The Sony Reader was designed to be an e-book reader but merits a mention here as it’s one of the few high profile devices available in the UK (from Sony and Waterstone’s for about £200).
Lacking the wireless internet capability of the Kindle devices, the Sony Reader does offer more format choice as well as free blog subscriptions.
Here’s a good text and video review of the latest model from guardian.co.uk’s Jemima Kiss.
No newspaper subscriptions are yet available for the Sony device but who knows what will happen in the future with this one – worth watching.
With two large-screen e-readers on their way from Plastic Logic and Amazon (we think…), could the next one be coming from within the newspaper industry?
Yes it could, according to a recent Fortune article which quoted insiders from newspaper publisher Hearst Corp saying the company has been developing its own e-reader for launch this year.
The story cited sources claiming the device is designed for newspaper and magazines with a large-format screen, wireless download delivery and an easy-to-read display.
And it was also reported that Hearst, along with its development partners, would sell the e-readers to other publishers and take a proportion of the revenue generated from subscriptions.
The news has been greeted with a mixed response from media commentators, with Amy Gahran describing it as a “step in the direction”, yet also warning that it would perhaps have been wiser for Hearst to partner with an e-reader manufacturer rather than make the devices themselves.
Harsher words came from blogger Michael Jones, who wrote that “the e-reader idea as floated by Hearst is more of a last-ditch attempt to save the industry than an attempt to save a couple of Hearst papers or the Hearst chain.
“Moreover, it seems a slender thread on which to hang the entire American newspaper industry.”
On a more positive note, CNET News declared: “It looks as if the e-paper revolution is really about to start.”
And with three large-screen e-readers likely to be on the market by this time next year, that could prove to be a prescient declaration.
Smartphones As E-Readers
Before we move on to look at the e-readers of the future, mention should be made of devices with LCD displays which have e-reader capabilities.
There are a whole host of companies cropping up which provide the software and/or content for smartphone users to read e-books on their LCD screens.
And although some people may see a smartphone as an inferior e-reading device due to high power consumption and backlit screens, plenty of users are signing up for the software.
Among the e-reader software applications available is TextonPhone, which has over 30,000 e-books available, and Stanza, which can be used on the iPhone and iPod Touch.
Also there’s the document reader software from Readdle and the Shortcovers app, which enables iPhone users to build up libraries of newspaper and magazine articles.
And as we saw earlier, Amazon now offers a free Kindle application for iPhones which works in conjunction with its own device.
So what’s a better buy for the e-book reading consumer? The Kindle with its e-ink display or the iPhone with its LCD screen?
According to ReadWriteWeb: “The Kindle does very few things with its black and white screen. It reads books, it checks some RSS feeds and gets the news... that’s about it.
“The iPhone, on the other hand, lets you do all of that, and pretty much anything else you can do on the Internet. And it’s a phone. And a portable media player.
“With sites like eBooks.com out there, which sells over 100,000 books, most in the PDF format that Readdle supports, theoretically the same content available on the Kindle is available on the iPhone.”
So which will win out between the purpose-built e-reader and the smartphone, only time will tell.
Matt Buchanan of Gizmodo summed it up nicely when he wrote: “Which display tech will win out may prove to be more economic than aesthetic, but ebook readers are here to stay.
“The presumption that everyone will eventually read books on an electronic display of some sort in the future is so fundamental I haven’t bothered to question it, mostly because nobody else does either.”
E- Readers – The Future
Colour for E-Paper
The future for e-ink is a colourful one according to insiders, who believe that the transition from black and white is only a year or so away.
E-Ink spokesman Sriram K Peruvemba told the New York Times that e-ink technology will be able to reproduce “newspaper-like colour” by 2010 (although full colour could be another year from then).
Other companies are also working on this technological step forward, but who might be putting up the money for such projects?
None other than media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who revealed at a recent industry show that News Corp. is considering investing in the production of a large-screen e-reader with colour display.
Rollable or flexible high-resolution display screens represent another target for e-reader manufacturers as they compete to produce an easily portable and robust device.
And one Dutch company says it has already achieved this with its creation of the world’s first “pocket ereader”.
The Readius is the size of a mobile phone with a rollable five-inch screen, which uses e-ink technology in its display and boasts wireless connectivity.
According to a New York Times review of the product from last year, “the screen looks just like a liquid crystal display, but can bend so flexibly that it can wrap around a finger”.
There’s no sign of it on the European market as yet despite a 2008 launch target, but it is expected to be made available at some stage this year.
Looking further ahead, designer Mayo Nissen took the opportunity last year to show off his ideas on what he envisions for the e-reader of the future.
Featured on the Editors Weblog, his design for the Guardian in 2015 introduces a new element where text would be revealed as the display screen is unfurled.
Visit the Design Blog to see a larger image of his vision for the Guardian of the future.
New and Improved LCD?
Developers are working on producing LCD screens to rival the readability of electronic paper displays.
And one company – Pixel Qi – says it has done just that and more, with designer Mary Lou Jepsen telling Gizmodo that its LCD screens are in fact more readable than e-paper displays.
She said the screens have all the advantages of the e-paper display, like sunlight readability, alongside LCD-only offerings such as full colour.
And they don’t have the disadvantages of standard LCD as backlighting can be switched off and the screens use a lot less power
The screens are scheduled for launch in the middle of this year, and Jepsen has predicted that “in 2010, LCDs designed for reading will overtake the electrophoretic (e-paper) display technology in the e-reader market”.
This is the term used by Josh Quittner in his TIME magazine article to describe a new kind of e-reader software from Adobe.
Adobe AIR allows users to view Flash-required web pages offline and the company has been working on applications for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times.
[Picture - Rafe Needleman/CNET]
Quittner believes that such applications are a kind of hybrid that “act more like computer programs than Web or printed pages”.
At a trade show last year Adobe showed off the results on a Mobile Internet Device from Chinese consumer electronics firm Aigo.
And the end product is impressive according to Quittner, noting that the IHT app “looks identical to but somehow better than the paper version of that newspaper. It feels alive”.
He also points out that the software can display colour images and does not need a constant connection like a web page, so users can read the application wherever they like once downloaded.
Apple & E-Readers
Despite the fact that Apple supremo Steve Jobs has claimed he has no interest in e-readers, there are lots of whisperings about Apple developing some kind of large-screen device.
TIME magazine reports that “Apple is rumored to be working on an iPod Touch-like device with a 7-in. or 9-in. (18 cm or 23 cm) screen, big enough to comfortably read”.
If the stories prove to be true, then the hallowed iPod of e-readers could be yet another innovative i-invention.
And The Economist states that the infrastructure is all in place for Apple to join the e-book market: “There are already millions of iPhones and touch-screen iPods in circulation, and the company has long been rumoured to be working on a larger “tablet” device.
“Selling e-books and newspapers via iTunes, which already has millions of paying customers, would be simple.”
E-Readers – The Salvation of Newspapers?
So how much notice should newspapers really be taking of this relatively new phenomenon?
A lot, according to a number of media commentators and industry analysts who believe that e-readers offer a solution to the industry’s biggest headache - how to get people to pay for digital content.
Digital trend spotter Steve Rubel outlined this belief in a recent blog post penned as an open letter to media companies.
He writes: “The good news is your great white hope has arrived. It’s the Amazon Kindle.
“My unsolicited advice is to jump in now. This could be your last chance to monetise content.”
In essence, Rubel’s argument is that the Kindle is like the iPod in that “it actually encourages people to pay for content rather than get it for free”.
Despite the abundance of free content on the Web, Rubel maintains that some people will still pay to get their favourite things - “The secret sauce is easy and instantaneous delivery of content as soon as it ships.”
TIME’s Josh Quittner agrees on this point: “It’s true that as long as we in the media ask you to read our stuff on your computer screens, you won’t pay for it.
“But if we deliver that content for a small fee on devices that can surpass the pleasures of reading on paper, you will.”
The argument that people will pay for convenience has also been made by The Economist.
Its article, “Electronic Books and Newspapers: An iTunes Moment” states that consumers are likely to pay for content that arrives overnight and can then be read anywhere.
And it contends that the impact on newspapers could be huge if e-readers become a hit with the market.
“If this approach took off, newspapers would no longer depend on advertisers and could wind down their paper editions. (They could also quietly scale back their free websites.)”
Amy Gahran is perhaps a bit more cautious on this point, but she too agrees that devices like the Kindle 2 could be the “game-changers for online and mobile news”.
“That is, if online news operations start taking e-reader technology seriously and work with Amazon and other companies to improve e-reader news delivery.”
And this is the crucial point made by them all – we are witnessing the beginning of the e-reader story and how it ends with regards to newspapers is firmly in the hands of the publishers.
Resources & Reviews
This New York Times article provides a useful overview of e-readers currently on the market or about to launch.
And Poynter Online has a page linking to e-reader related stories from the last couple of years.
Plus a round-up of some of the ongoing projects exploring the views of the news consumer towards e-readers is available on the Editors Weblog.
If you want to know more about the individual devices, there are lots of reviews posted on the Web and here are links to a sample few.
Kindle2reviews.com – has a round-up of lots of reviews including video reviews
Sony Reader PRS-500
Sony Reader PRS- 700
New York Times
iLiad ebook Reader
personal computer world