Well, the newspaper world could do with a glimpse of hope. And there it came: after all the signals of steady decline, at least in the industrialised world, digital paper finally offers a perspective for innovation and growth of the beleaguered sector. The digital paper technology combines the best of two worlds: the look and feel of the traditional paper and the versatility of the online editions (see 'E-Readers, Background'). The promise it offers is mind boggling: a newspaper era without newsprint, rotation presses and complicated distribution lines: all serious cost factors. The practice however is less convincing. The enabling e-ink technology is around for several years, but its application is still scarce and purely experimental. That is, until now.
How electronic reading panes are going to change the very nature of the business
With improved functionality of the gear and sophistication of the embedded software, we witness an array of initiatives across Europe and beyond. In a series of three contributions, a number of the most interesting e-reader projects are briefly described. Today a report about the landmark field test the Belgian financial paper De Tijd held last year. The next piece will describe a recently started joint initiative of five Dutch newspapers, and in a third contribution Roger Fidler, the American founding father of the electronic newspaper concept, will give his assessment of the digital paper revolution.
While virtually all newspapers were still ignorant of the digital paper arrival, the Belgian newspaper De Tijd, together with the Flemish research centre IBBT and Philips affiliate iRex Technologies (left), organised a three-month field test for 200 test readers of the paper. The group consisted mostly of well-educated males with a vibrant professional life style: the men on the move. This panel received a daily update of the paper and could select and read articles of choice on the Iliad e-reader iRex had provided and calibrated for the test. The project was intensely guided and researched. The test results give a good insight in the potential as well as the limitations of the e-reader technology at this stage.
It turned out that the test users associated the electronic reading experience with the classical paper rather than an online newspaper edition. Consequently, they were expecting the look and feel of the print product, but now projected onto their mobile e-reading pane. No particular interest in last minute updates, that is in this instance. As such, the device was evaluated as a complementary tool, the ideal travel companion. A pleasant add-on though; a good 45 per cent would consider purchasing the device if a regular journalistic service would be available.
Especially the portability and excellent readability under daylight conditions were highly rated, a noticeable difference with the performance of LCD displays of standard laptop computers. The test users were less satisfied with the rather slow page refreshment time and the general device lay-out; the first problem has been remedied meanwhile by the hardware provider but the latter (the ‘user-in-control’ feeling) requires further development.
Concerning the e-reader content, the proof readers made clear that the used PDF-copy of the print paper was not an appropriate format. The trusted click-through functionality worked well but additional personalisation options (archiving, electronic clipping for instance) and a search function would be welcome. These findings demonstrate that at the user side, the hybrid character of the technology is recognised and appreciated.
The De Tijd-project also looked into the various business models for e-readers. Four possible scenarios were identified, based on two main factors: the level of openness (open versus proprietary solutions) and nature of the content (one source or a variety of sources). The most simple scenario is the newspaper add-on: an e-reader service as an extension of the existing print edition. In the kiosk model, not one newspaper but also other edited volumes such as further papers, magazines, books etc. can be uploaded to the device. The iTunes model is based on the assumption that readers are ready for the purchase of single articles from a preferred provider and then make the collections (me-papers) themselves. The fourth scenario draws on the web model; the reader buys the device and then happily collects the content of Rollable screen E-Reader by Philips subsidiary Polyvision
his/her choice, free and/or paid-for.
These scenarios were assessed by several Flemish stakeholders and media specialists. The general opinion was a continued belief in the present power of editorially composed content and at the same time a growing understanding of the preference of especially younger generations for free and open web-enabled solutions in the times to come.
For more detail about the De Tijd project, contact email@example.com
The Paperless Paper: E-Readers, Background
The often proclaimed mobile, personalised multimedia electronic paper is quickly maturing: the e-reader has arrived. Trend Watch even referred to the device as “literature’s iPod”. A pivotal role is played by the e-ink mounted devices companies like Sony (left), iRex Technologies and Fujitsu have launched. Electronic ink, originally a product from the Xerox labs, is based on the (electronic) activation of vast numbers of small moving ‘balls’, which, depending on their charge, turn black or white. That delivers a permanently refreshable, highly readable monochrome picture with a resolution of 170 pixels per inch. Once a picture is established, it doesn’t require energy.
The breed of e-readers using this technology has a striking resemblance with the print medium it is supposed to replace: excellent readability, certainly in daylight conditions, portability, and in the near future the same fold-up format (once the present solid back is replaced by a flexible plastic substrate) we love so much in the paper predecessor. So, e-ink based e-readers combine the once unbeatable qualities of the print product with the speed and immediacy of the internet. They more than deserve our curiosity and professional attention.
Next contribution in this series: the battle for appealing e-reader content.
Source: written by Jan Bierhoff, Director of the European Centre for Digital Communication