Still Searching for E-Readers

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I’m still searching for e-readers … but I’m getting close. Last year in my column “It Ain’t Easy Being Green,” I noted the problems newspapers face and the benefits of “going green.” Since then, subscription costs have continued to rise and newspapers now need their own bailouts. The Washington Post recently announced that earnings were down 77%, the Chicago Sun-Times filed for bankruptcy … and this is just a sampling. Print and distribution costs are part of the problem. Olive Software estimates that for a daily newspaper, production expenses can run about 25 cents per issue, and the cost of carrier delivery is another 3 cents. Books and magazines seem to have similar though less severe problems. Younger readers in particular expect to get information that is both current and online. Amazon’s Kindle has proven a somewhat satisfactory alternative to print delivery for books, and it provides subscriptions to online news sources (although those are often in addition to online subscriptions).

Given the attraction of electronic delivery, you’d think somebody would be offering an e-reader that provides an experience that is nearly indistinguishable from print, with the economies of electronic delivery, a kind of Turing test for e-readers: reliable replacement for print products; color display; compatibility with the de facto electronic document format, Adobe PDF; printing (to paper or PDF) for offline viewing, while costing less than paper. And, oh yes, provide all that with a roughly 8.5'' x 11'' screen as light and rugged as the paper it replaces.

So are we any closer to such a solution? I’ve found one vendor (Plastic Logic) that promises to meet all my requirements except color. More about that later, but what about today’s mainstream devices, the Kindle and Sony e-reader? Both can display books in standard office and PDF formats. The Kindle offers wireless newspaper subscriptions, and each costs several hundred dollars. Oh, but be careful not to drop them; unlike books and newspapers—still readable with a wet or torn page—they are quite fragile.

For the most part, current products flunk my e-reader Turing test. Imagine you want to buy a new pair of e-reading glasses. You search the e-optometrist’s racks to see what is available. You discover that some glasses let you look at just a small piece of print at a time; some will work only with a certain publisher’s books; some require a second online subscription if you want access to breaking news; others require you to buy another cell phone for its “e-glasses” feature, even though you’re quite happy with the phone you already own. These choices seem crazy to me, and they do not come close to being an alternative to print with the benefits of electronic delivery. 

Olive Software offers delivery experiences like print, including the ability to search and copy text, as you would do with paper, but it’s faster. Olive’s focus is on production and delivery to many devices. Sasha Frey, Olive Software’s marketing director, says, “We see an increasing demand among publishers to be able to tap into e-reader audiences. Therefore, we position our open technology platform to provide publishers the flexibility to output their content to a variety of devices.” To me this means that Olive’s strategy is delivery to e-readers and laptops alike, and it cites many big-name newspapers such as the Financial Times that are already using Olive’s software.

What about the devices themselves? It is beginning to look like we’ll soon have an e-reader Turing test winner. Plastic Logic, a privately held firm in the U.K., has developed a device providing a nearly paperlike experience for online and offline viewing of virtually any electronic format, from the ubiquitous PDF to Microsoft Office and Open Office formats.

I discussed the company’s upcoming offering with Plastic Logic’s senior director of ecommerce and online marketing, Elizabeth Ames. The devices aren’t generally available yet, although several large newspapers are already announcing plans to deliver to Plastic Logic e-readers. I can even imagine a “dream team” of Olive Software delivering to Plastic Logic (see my blog, for more). Although Plastic Logic will initially target news and business publications, I see no reason why its reader couldn’t be used for ebooks as well. Ames says, “Our vision is to create a device that is the equivalent experience of reading on paper but with the power of a digital environment. It must provide an intuitive and immersive environment for reading with the tools to actively organize and manage content.” Deliver on that promise and meet the e-reader Turing tests, and I’ll place my order.