Electronic newspaper reader has look of the real thing
By Eric A. Taub
Monday, September 8, 2008
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts: The electronic newspaper, a large portable screen that is constantly updated with the latest news, has been a prop in science fiction for ages. It also figures in the dreams of newspaper publishers struggling with rising production and delivery costs, lower circulation and decreased ad revenue from their printed product.
While the dream device remains on the drawing board, Plastic Logic now has a version of an electronic newspaper reader: a lightweight plastic screen that mimics the look - but not the feel - of a printed newspaper.
The device uses the same technology as the Sony Reader and Amazon.com's Kindle, a highly legible black-and-white display developed by E Ink. While both of those devices are intended primarily as book readers, Plastic Logic's device, still unnamed in advance of its formal unveiling Monday at an emerging-technology trade show in San Diego, has a screen more than twice as large. The size of a piece of copier paper, it can be continually updated via a wireless link, and it can store and display hundreds of pages of newspapers, books and documents.
Richard Archuleta, chief executive of Plastic Logic, said the display was big enough to provide a layout like a newspaper's. "Even though we have positioned this for business documents, newspapers is what everyone asks for," Archuleta said.
The reader is to go on sale in the first half of next year. Plastic Logic is not saying which news organization will display articles on it until the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, when it will also disclose the price.
Kenneth Bronfin, president of Hearst Interactive Media, said, "We are hopeful that we will be able to distribute our newspaper content on a new generation of larger devices sometime next year." While he would not say what device the company's papers would use, he said: "We have a very strong interest in e-newspapers. We're very anxious to get involved."
Hearst, the parent of Hearst Interactive Media, owns 16 daily newspapers in the United States, including The Houston Chronicle, The San Antonio Express and The San Francisco Chronicle, and was an early investor in E Ink. The company already distributes electronic versions of some newspapers on the Amazon Kindle.
Newspaper companies have watched the technology closely for years. The ideal format, a flexible display that could be rolled or folded like a newspaper, is still years off, says E Ink. But it foresees color displays with moving images and interactive clickable advertising coming in only a few more years, according to Sriram Peruvemba, vice president for marketing for E Ink.
E Ink expects that within the next few years it will be able to create technology that allows users to write on the screen and view videos. At a recent demonstration at E Ink's headquarters here, the company showed prototypes of flexible displays that can create rudimentary colors and animated images. "By 2010, we will have a production version of a display that offers newspaperlike color," Peruvemba said.
If e-newspapers take off, the savings could be hefty. At The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, print and delivery amount to 65 percent of the paper's fixed expenses, Bronfin said.
With electronic readers, publishers would also learn more about its readers. With paper copy subscriptions, newspapers know what address has received a copy and not much else. About those customers picking up a copy on the newsstand, they know nothing beyond what they can deduce in surveys.
As an electronic device, newspapers can determine who is reading their paper, and even which articles are being read. Advertisers would be able to understand their audience and direct advertising to its likeliest customers.
While this raises privacy concerns, "these are future possibilities which we will explore," said Hans Brons, chief executive of iRex Technologies in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
IRex markets the iLiad, an electronic reader that measures 8.5 by 6.1 inches, or 21.5 by 15.5 centimeters, and can be used to receive electronic versions of the newspapers Les Echos in France and NRC Handelsblad in the Netherlands.
The iLiad, Kindle and Reader prove the technology works. The big question for newspaper companies is how much people will pay for a device and the newspaper subscription for it.
Papers face a tough competitor: their own Web sites, where the information is free. And they have trained a generation of new readers to expect free news. In Holland, the iLiad comes with a one-year subscription for 599, or $855. The cost of each additional year is 189, or $270, making the marginal price of the reader 410. NRC offers just one electronic edition of the paper a day, while Les Echos updates its iRex version 10 times a day.
A number of newspapers, including The New York Times, whose global edition is the International Herald Tribune, offer electronic versions through the Kindle device; The Times on the Kindle costs $14 a month, similar to the cost of other papers.
Les Echos is also participating in an experiment sponsored by France Télécom that uses the iRex, along with five other major French dailies: Le Monde, Le Figaro, Le Parisien, Libération and L'Équipe.
Most electronic reading devices use E Ink's technology to create an image. Unlike liquid-crystal display of computer monitors and televisions, electronic paper technology does not need a backlight; remains displayed even when the power source runs down; and looks brighter, not dimmer, in strong light. It also draws little power from the device's battery.
Plastic Logic's first display, while offering a screen size that is 2.5 times larger than the Kindle, weighs just 2 ounces, or 56 grams, more and is about one-third the thickness of Kindle. It uses flexible, lightweight plastic, rather than glass.