The Swedish mobile technology engineer Stig Nordqvist has a vision. He sees millions of people accessing up-to-the-minute, broadsheet-quality news on small handheld devices that can stay switched on longer than most people can stay awake. Think iPod—plus connectivity—for newshounds.
When? A lot sooner than you might expect. Several newspapers in Europe and Asia are already producing dedicated e''reader editions, and others are following suit. At the forefront are a couple of dozen publications part way through a three-year electronic news initiative, organized by IFRA, a publishing trade association based in Darmstadt, Germany, with more than 3000 members worldwide. IFRA launched its e-News project in March to help members evaluate business and editorial opportunities opened by a new generation of handheld electronic reading devices [see photo, ”New World of News”]. Participants include The New York Times and its International Herald Tribune subsidiary in Paris, Spain’s El País, Britain’s Telegraph Group, and Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun.
”We are seeing the start of a big change as to how we read not just newspapers but books and magazines as well,” says Nordqvist, IFRA’s director of business development. ”E-reader technology in the newspaper industry is going to take off, and the evolution of these devices will be breathtakingly rapid.”
Nordqvist’s view is rapidly gaining ground in the industry, despite the discouraging performance in the last decade of the obvious precursor technology, e-books.
Bruno Rives, president of Tebaldo, a digital media consulting firm in Paris, predicts that 2007 will be a breakthrough year for e-readers. ”The stakes are so high that all of the actors in the sector have accelerated development,” says Rives, a leading expert on the commercial applications of electronic paper.
Many newspapers continue to turn handsome profits, but with circulation and ad revenue generally stagnant and more and more readers going to the Internet first to get news in real time, no publisher can ignore the writing on the wall. Bluntly put, there’s not much future for the once-a-day distribution of highly perishable information, printed with ink on thin sheets of expensive, chemically treated wood pulp.
Enter half a dozen new e-readers from Europe and Asia, most relying on an electronic ink developed by MIT spin-off E Ink, in Cambridge, Mass. Oddly, none appears to have been designed specifically with newspapers in mind. But people in the black-on-white news business say the devices just might be the vehicle to bring newspapers into the mobile digital age.
Take the iLiad, an electronic reader developed by iRex Technologies (Interactive Reading Experience), a Dutch company in Eindhoven, launched in July by six engineers who split off, amicably, from Dutch Royal Philips Electronics. At first glance, the iLiad looks like an oversize PDA or an ultrathin tablet PC, but the similarity is only skin-deep. Personal assistants and tablets generally have heavy, backlit LCD screens that chew up battery power, but the iLiad is composed of a plastic sheet embedded with millions of microscopic capsules containing oppositely charged black and white particles. A positive charge applied to the electrodes in the substrate attracts the black particles and pushes the white ones to the top of the microcapsule, where they become visible, and vice versa.
For reading, that kind of active-matrix electrophoretic display—invented by E Ink and used in all the e-readers currently on the market—has three significant advantages. Because the screen, like paper, reflects rather than transmits light, it is equally viewable from any angle, unlike an LCD screen, which is designed to be viewed head-on. It is also readable in direct sunlight, an important selling point.
Another eye-saving feature is the static image. ”It is just like paper—there is a zero-refresh rate,” explains iRex cofounder Jan van de Kamer.
Because the image does not move, it doesn’t drain the battery, which at present holds a charge for 15 hours. The company says the battery will soon allow for 20 hours of uninterrupted reading—enough time to digest Sunday’s edition of The New York Times.