Can e-reading save the print media?
We replaced typewriters with ease two decades ago, and flat-screen LCD TVs are making their way to poor neighbourhoods. We have made mobile phones something we can't live without and been doing major banking transactions electronically. Post offices have been made redundant, and kids are learning from tutors on the other side of the world. Nothing, it seems, can stand the test of the times without adapting. Except for one thing, that is.
Papers, a key villain in the global-warming saga, have managed to survive through thick and thin. Of course, publishers have been dropping like flies around the world, but the fact that we still see newspapers, magazines and other periodicals in their current forms stacking the news stands is simply a wonder. What's the deal with the white sheets we have to kill trees to produce? What has prevented them from the same fate as typewriters, postage stamps or the annoying cassette tapes that often got "eaten" by also-extinct cassette-players? The voice has been digitalised, and so have moving images. Why do written words still need papers?
The answer lies with the snail-paced technological and commercial progress of electronic reading devices. They have been tested and tried and been in existence for years, but for some reason they just have been unable to do a mobile phone.
Researchers are blaming three main factors for the unusually slow evolution: the semi-monopolistic nature of the electronic reading-device business, reluctance of publishers to do away with paper-related investment, and, questionably, consumers' "old habits".
Publishing companies are reportedly feeling let down by the producers of the Kindle e-reading device. High on their complaints about the Amazon portable reading gadget is the way Amazon acts as a middleman with subscribers and controls pricing. In addition, the layout isn't conducive to advertising. So we can easily see that while novels, which rely on sales volume, can easily migrate to the portable device, newspapers and magazines remain largely unsure about jumping on the bandwagon.
To print-media entrepreneurs, embracing electronic reading devices means switching to a subscription-based business formula. Since income from advertising remains substantial despite a continuous decline, the publishers understandably are ambivalent at best about making a switch. Most of all, going to e-reading devices raises the very troubling question of who in fact is the publisher: themselves, the device-operators or the writers.
Compromise solutions are being sought. For example, Hearst Corp, which publishes the San Francisco Chronicle and Houston Chronicle as well as magazines including Cosmopolitan, is backing a venture with FirstPaper LLC to create a software platform that will support digital downloads of newspapers and magazines. The start-up venture is expected to result in devices that will have a bigger screen and the ability to show advertising.
Gannett's USA Today and Pearson's Financial Times are among newspapers that have signed up with Plastic Logic, a start-up that is readying a reading tablet the size of a sheet of letter paper that can displays books, periodicals and work documents. The device, which uses digital ink technology from E Ink Corp, the same firm that is behind the Kindle, is slated to be rolled out early next year and will offer publishers the chance to include advertising and/or sponsorship.
Whether or not the sudden urgency can save print-media empires reeling around the world remains to be seen. Most of all, the printing businesses find themselves in their current predicament because they were unsure what to do with the papers and what other steps they should take without making themselves redundant.
As for e-reading device producers/operators, they are staring at a peculiar window of opportunity. Today the likes of Kindle may have the upper hand, but sooner rather than later the market will be flooded, and the tide will turn. At present it is the contents that are begging to be seen through the devices, but in the future it could be the devices that will be begging for content.
As for readers - and this is probably where the researchers got a little lost - do they really mind reading from a screen that feels to the eye like a paper? Most certainly not. "Old habits" definitely die hard, but they do so elsewhere, not in the field of information technology. With the right device and right service, they will switch in the blink of an eye. And what is better proof of that than the fact that the old media are on life-support at the moment?
The Nation, Thailand
(R) thedailystar.net 2009