When scientists inside the MIT Media Lab began toying with "electronic paper" more than a decade ago, much of their enthusiasm focused on single killer app: a portable, paperless newspaper. E-newspapers would be a huge environmental win, eliminating the need to pulp trees and burn gasoline delivering the traditional folded parcels to readers' driveways. Like many technologies, however, e-paper has been slow to take off. In the past year, since Amazon introduced its Kindle electronic reading device, thousands of Americans have experienced the pleasures of e-books—but for most people, e-newspapers aren't yet a reality.
Millions of us already read paperless newspapers and magazines on the Web, but e-newspapers, read on devices like the Kindle, would offer different benefits for both readers and publishers. For consumers who already spend too many hours staring at PC screens, e-newspapers would offer portability and an uncluttered reading environment, blissfully free from e-mail bells ringing or IMs popping up mid-paragraph. Among publishers, there's real hope readers will pay subscription fees for those benefits (something few Web readers do), and that advertisers will pay considerably more for ads on e-readers than they do on the Web. If these new streams of cash materialize, they could help an industry that's seen revenues fall sharply as readers and advertisers have begun abandoning high-margin print products. E-newspapers would also eliminate printing and delivery costs—typically half of what publishers spend to put out a newspaper.
For a primitive look at how e-newspapers might work, consider the Kindle. Amazon currently offers 24 newspapers for use on the device. Subscribers pay $5.99 to $14.99 per month, and each issue arrives wirelessly before sunup. Even e-reader enthusiasts describe reading a newspaper on the Kindle as disappointing—and after reading four dailies on the device for the past two weeks, I'd have to agree. I loved not having to walk to the driveway to fetch my morning papers, and I enjoyed not having to recycle them afterward. But this convenience carries a cost. The Kindle's black-and-white screen doesn't handle photographs or graphics well, and its e-papers carry no advertising. Navigating between stories is cumbersome. The biggest problem, though, is that e-readers work best for "linear reading"—reading long pages of text, as in a book—and not as well for the buffet-like browsing behavior that makes reading a newspaper one of life's great pleasures. Instead of offering well-designed pages that entice readers to skim a story they might otherwise skip, today's e-newspapers merely list headlines or tops of articles, which makes it hard to decide what's worth reading. As a result, although some analysts predict Amazon will sell a half million Kindles in its first 13 months on the market, they estimate only a few thousand buyers have used the device to read a newspaper. (Amazon won't discuss its numbers.)
Among the firms working to perfect these devices, there's some hope that will change soon. "Newspapers are the next wave," says Russell Wilcox, chief executive of E Ink, the MIT spinoff whose technology powers the Kindle, Sony's Reader and other competitors. "You'll see, in the next 12 to 18 months, a wave of electronic-newspaper devices." Roger Fidler, a former newspaper executive who now researches and consults on e-readers at the University of Missouri, cites three requirements for e-newspapers to really catch on with consumers: the devices require larger screens (to allow room for better display of stories, photos and ads), color screens (a must for advertisers) and lower prices (the Kindle currently sells for $359).
Color is still a few years away, but several companies will soon launch e-readers with screens the size of an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper—and unlike existing e-readers, which have glass screens, these next-generation machines will use flexible, plastic screens that readers won't have to worry about cracking. Richard Archuleta is CEO of Plastic Logic, which this week is set to demo a larger, flex-screen reader that will go on sale next year. He says it works far better for newspapers than the Kindle. "You can browse articles—you can have that serendipitous experience you have with a newspaper, where you discover things," Archuleta says.
There's also hope the industry will find a solution to the devices' high costs. Print-newspaper subscriptions are fairly pricey: I pay more than $1,300 a year to get home delivery of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. Even if e-newspaper readers pay lower subscription fees, newspapers could still take in enough to subsidize the devices for subscribers, the same way cell-phone carriers give a "free" phone to customers who sign a two-year contract. Reading an e-newspaper may never be as enjoyable as reading it in print, but advocates say many consumers will sign on anyway. "[The experience] will be close enough that the convenience, the economics and the environmental considerations will make it inevitable that people will switch," says Wilcox, the E Ink chief.
There are still reasons to be skeptical. The biggest worry is whether consumers who've grown used to reading newspaper Web sites for free can be persuaded to pay $10 or more a month for an e-newspaper subscription. "Free tends to win out once it's been established in the customers' minds," says James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research. "I know there are people whose hearts and souls are invested in saving the newspaper concept, but it's breathing its last breath already, in my opinion." As this technology evolves, newspaper junkies like me will be rooting hard that the e-reader evangelists can prove him wrong.