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The race for a better read

When the magazine I edited for five years went out of business in 2007, I decided to see if there was anything out there that…

When the magazine I edited for five years went out of business in 2007, I decided to see if there was anything out there that could save the old-media business from the new-media reality. I have some good news to report. It is true that as long as we in the media ask you to read our stuff on your computer screens, you will not pay for it. But if we deliver that content for a small fee on devices that can surpass the pleasures of reading on paper, you will. So the really pressing question is, “Can the technology for such e-reading devices be developed and made more widely available in time to save my profession?” The answers are more surprising — and exciting — than you might think.

The Kindle and Beyond

E-books and their like have been around in one form or another for more than a decade, but people weren’t lining up to buy them until Amazon launched its Kindle a little over a year ago. The Kindle wasn’t cooler than any of the other e-readers out there — the first-generation version does not even have a touchscreen — but it offered one advantage key to saving publishing: every device can connect to a high-speed data network, virtually anywhere, and download books and periodicals easily and cheaply. I’ve grabbed books on demand from my bed, bath and beyond, and that more than compensates for the gadget’s awkward interface.

Analysts estimate that about 500,000 of the $359 devices have sold so far. It’s been frequently out of stock since its launch, especially after Oprah Winfrey gave it her golden endorsement. That is great news for Amazon, which was rumoured to be unveiling Kindle 2.0, and it is heartening to those of us bobbing around in leaky life rafts among the ice floes near the sinking Titanic.

But good as it is, you can not do a crossword puzzle on the Kindle, which speaks to a bigger problem. For most people, the Kindle is still not as good as cheap and wonderful-to-touch paper. An old saw in the technology business is that any new tech must be 10 times as good as the thing it seeks to displace. Most people would agree that the automobile was exponentially better than the horse, just as the personal computer was a vast improvement over the typewriter. The change did not happen overnight; it took time for both the auto and the PC to be easy enough to use and cheap enough to buy before they were adopted by the mass market. E-readers must exponentially improve on the experience of reading on paper.

Two Words: Plastic Logic

What everyone really wants, of course, is the iPod of e-readers. It was Steve Jobs who first understood the power of a killer device. After he created the iPod and linked it to the iTunes Music Store, people started paying for songs again, and to date, Apple has sold more than six billion of them. Jobs duplicated that model with the Apple App Store, which offers more than 15,000 apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Might Apple be able to work the same magic for the publishing industry? Jobs once said he had no interest in creating an e-reader — “People don’t read” — but Apple is rumoured to be working on an iPod Touch-like device with a 7- or 9-inch (18 or 23 centimetre) screen, big enough to comfortably read.

Even more industry buzz these days surrounds Plastic Logic, a Silicon Valley stealth start-up just north of Apple. Everything in the reader it is developing will be made of plastic, from its non-LCD screen to its transistors. Recently, I got a look at a Plastic Logic prototype. Like the iPhone, it is little more than a touchscreen, 8.5 by 11 inches (22 by 28 centimetre), linked wirelessly (like the Kindle) via a high-speed cellular network to a store that will support on-demand transactions of les than a dollar. There are just two problems. Because everything about Plastic Logic’s device is new, right down to a fab plant built in Dresden that’s churning out parts, the first model will not reach consumers until 2010. And version 1.0 will render text in standard E-Ink black on gray. CEO Richard Archuleta says a colour screen that can handle true black and white (not to mention the gamut of colours needed to reproduce the page you see now) will not be ready before 2011.

An “Appgazine” Is Born

To some of us journalists floating around in the North Atlantic, that could be too late. That is why I believe the old print business ought to take advantage of what is doable now so that it is ready to provide a new reading experience once the iPod of readers finally arrives. For magazines like TIME, that means creating hybrids — what I’ve come to think of as “appgazines” — that act more like computer programmes than Web or printed pages.

I saw my first real appgazine one day in downtown San Francisco, at Adobe, a company whose software dominates the production side of the publishing industry. Chief technology officer Kevin Lynch held in his hands a mobile Internet device made by a Chinese company called Aigo. This model, already on the market in Asia, has an easily readable touchscreen. But more interesting than how it looked was the software it was running — Adobe AIR.

In geekspeak, AIR is an application runtime — a small chunk of code you download for free that then becomes a platform upon which other applications can run. AIR is compatible with any Windows, Macintosh or Linux computer and has been downloaded 100 million times. “We’re aiming for a consistent experience across all devices,” says Lynch, touching the screen to launch an International Herald Tribune app. It looks identical to but somehow better than the paper version of that newspaper. It feels alive. “You can do anything you want with AIR. It’s totally expressive,” he says, with a gentle tap launching the Business section. Unlike a Web version, which needs a persistent connection and whose design is constrained by the parameters of the browser, the app fills the entire screen, immersing you in the reading experience. Once it’s delivered, you can read it anywhere, even on a plane.

Magazines, since they attempt to package information with big colour photos, look even cooler as applications. Lynch fires up (Red)Wire, a music magazine that is delivered only as an AIR application. (The enterprise raises money for AIDS in Africa and is backed by Bono and other well-known musicians.) The appgazine looks like a folded box when it launches onscreen; Lynch clicks, and it unfolds, revealing a kind of table of contents. It is startling, it is cool. And you can not get it for free: (Red)Wire, which launched on December 10, 2008, charges $5.

Is this the future? I believe more than ever that the patient can be saved. But media companies need to help themselves. In the boardrooms of some of the biggest publishers, people are already discussing giving away devices with subscriptions. Why not? In the end, it’s far cheaper, more efficient and more ecological for us than paper distribution — and more enjoyable for you than reading on the Web. And that is the key. Because the only real question is, Brother, will you pay me a dime?

Culled from TIME magazine