The promise of the eReader

For the Chinese this is going to be the Year of the Tiger. For the techno-gadget minded among us this will be the year of the eReader. The momentum of expectation that Apple is going to introduce iSlate/iTab/iTouch later this month is such that even initial sceptics are being persuaded. At CES Plastic Logic has shown off its device, the first generally available with a colour display. And a flood of different units is expected from Korea and Taiwan before the year is out. Some expect there to be more than 50 such devices introduced this year. If Amazon’s Kindle could be dismissed as clunky and with a very restrictive business model, this is not going to be the case any longer.

But what of the content? Four or five years ago professors at universities engaged in the European mobile communications project were bemoaning the lack of support from publishers for the new 3G and proposed 4G and 5G platforms that they were thinking about. There was a lack of common interface on phones, publishers could not see how they might be paid, the phones themselves were awkward to use, concentrating as they did on text messaging,  phone calls or music. Apple’s iPhone changed all that and has spawned a new eco-system of smart devices that just happen to make calls as well as being a platform for games, information, maps, and countless other tools, some useless, but including some that are already indispensable. And some of these have included digital versions of magazines, majoring on the ability to read an issue which might otherwise be unobtainable rather than because the digital version is better than paper.

The coming generation of devices might be about to change that. Condé Nast has shown what Wired magazine might look like transferred to a handheld flat screen, Time Inc has done the same with Sports Illustrated. Best of all, to my mind, is the work that London agency Berg has done with Swedish publisher Bonnier . No doubt the world’s other major publishers must be considering how they can transfer the magazine experience into a projected rather than reflected view and other examples are waiting only until Apple lets slip its dogs of war.

However, the question must be whether switching a magazine, or a book for that matter, from paper to display, is the best use of the technology. Even the most fastidious reader rarely consumes every page of a magazine received. The arrival of portable, touch sensitive screens surely provides the opportunity to create new and engaging ways to present content. I envisage an iTunes Store for articles, groups of articles. Readers will be able to browse by genre, by author and by subject to pick an article and pay using the micro payments system that Apple has established for music and its Apps environment. The author/publisher is recompensed and perhaps a new reader is uncovered. I’d certainly be happy to pay to read stimulating articles by Christopher Hitchens say when Vanity Fair is difficult to find in a rural newsagent in the UK.

They might also give rise to a new type of content, the ‘barticle’ ­ – longer than an article in a magazine, but shorter than a conventional book. More like an old-style pamphlet in fact. The logistics of producing short books like these rules them out for most publishers who otherwise control distribution channels. But with digital distribution and consumption, this is no longer the barrier. Without the hassle of costing, ordering paper, print and distribution, the author/publisher can be quick to market and catch the wave of interest in a subject in a way that simply was not possible before.

What does this mean for printers who for nigh on 500 years have lived off the publishing industry? There will still be a need to clean up content and shape it for publication, something that publishers will not always want to become involved with, but of course most printers will continue to count on a strategy where the last man standing wins.



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