Monday, April 20, 2009

e-Books of the Space Future

While the newspaper industry's folding (I love that play on words) is a broad subject I've been meaning to cover, I simply have not had time to do the research, but some experts are saying new e-book readers and devices may one day replace the traditional print newspaper, and that is something I can discuss immediately.

Most of you are likely familiar with Amazon's Kindle. Maybe you are like me and have heard of it, even read about it, but are otherwise ignorant as to the details - or maybe you're one of the lucky few who already owns one or has at least had the chance to play with one, hands-on. While Amazon's Kindle seems to be the e-reader most know of, many companies are entering this field, including Microsoft and Sony.

While all of them are developing and incorporating new technologies which mimic print (ink), many are also developing technologies to include color displays and even flexible consoles. As we all know, monitor displays can be taxing on the old eyeballs. This has been the major concern for e-books and e-readers from jumpstreet. Companies like iRex and 1000S offer devices employing "e-ink," which is about as close to printed ink as today's technology can get.

Of course, e-readers offer tools and interactivity traditional print cannot, such as dictionaries, the ability to enlarge text and change fonts and layout, and store thousands of titles. Some can even be written-on using a stylus, allowing users to annotate selections, or even do crosswords and the like. France's Ave! Comics is already expanding into this field; Ave! Comics offers consumers digital comic strips by subscription.

And a subscription model is the one most news outlets are likely to employ. However, traditional Web advertising (banner ads, sponsored links and articles, etc.) are likely to begin appearing once the technology becomes widespread. As the devices run on batteries, or are charged between uses, and the energy expended is measured by page views instead of hours, I expect providers to offer "free," ad-based, subscriptions and ad-free content with paid subscriptions; ad content could deplete the e-readers' energy quickly enough that paying for the content would be preferable.

But right now, e-readers are cost-prohibitive to most. The current economy aside, Amazon's Kindle 2 is a whopping $350+, Bookeen's Cybook @$450US, and other models are about the same. Many companies and providers are already developing this technology for delivery via smartphones, which leads one to wonder if e-reader technology will ever progress much further, much less become mainstream. Microsoft's Zune allows users to read e-books, in fact.

You then have to add the cost of the actual content, which is inexpensive enough when you consider the classics, though new releases are no bargain. Either way, those costs will add-up over time. Currently, most titles are around $5.00 through Amazon, and though no news outlets are currently offering subscriptions, they would have to be competitive. Basing their ongoing costs on the price of whole e-books, even $15-20 annually doesn't seem enough to cover costs, though they could justify higher subscription rates based on the fact that they provide new content regularly. And since the devices can store so many titles, consumers could "clip" articles to their own "morgues." The question is: will consumers pay a competitive price?

I expect there to be two models growing from this:
  • Aggregate subscriptions, which offer syndicated content from a variety of sources already chosen. These may have "alternate" sources, allowing the subscriber to choose between providers for different departments; as an example, the subscriber may have the choice of receiving his tech news from either Wired or TechCrunch. He would make the decision at the time he pays for the subscription and may or may not be able to change it later, possibly at cost. The reader would pay a single price and the aggregating service would cover the rest; the cost would include subscription prices to the syndicators, as well as the aggregator's "delivery" fee.
  • Individualized, piecemeal "MyNews"-type models, in which the reader "creates" his own news service by subscribing to the various outlets he chooses. For example, he would pay Ave! Comics directly for comics delivery, Wired for tech news, Yahoo! for local news, Reuters for world news, and so on.

Generally speaking, most consumers would go for the aggregate model. For all-round coverage, it would be cheaper and more convenient. However, more tech-savvy readers might choose an individualized platform, which would also be preferable to those who desire only a few, specific departments (such as comics and world news - and nothing else). Should this occur, only a few of the companies which formerly published newspapers (the most tech-savvy of the bunch, and also likely the earliest adopters of the Web) will survive the changeover - and they may even do so more or less intact. After all, their content isn't at issue here; it's the delivery that's changing.

Of course, this is all conjecture on my part, but it seems logical.

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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