TOWARDS THE HOLY GRAIL
From the New York Times, a story headlined "Microsoft Software will let Times Readers Download Paper", touches on a subject near and dear to me for almost two decades: a time when most if not all of our publications are easily readable, search-able, comment-able, shareable and monetizable.
OK, so some of those words may be as much on the margin of being a word as "The Decider", but hopefully you get my point.
Here're some excerpts from the story for background:
With Microsoft's new Windows Vista software, to be available in January, virtually any newspaper, magazine or book can be formatted into an electronic version and read online or off. The software would allow The Times to replicate its look — fonts, typeface and layout — more closely than its Web site now does.
Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The Times, unveiled the prototype at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors..."
"The Times said it would charge advertisers to appear on the new version of the newspaper, called Times Reader, but it had not decided whether to charge readers for the service. Microsoft would include the offering in the next version of its operating system..."
"For today's demonstration, The Times was downloaded onto small tablet
computers, about the size of a hardcover book, which are already commercially available for $1,000 to $3,000.
But this printlike version of the newspaper could also be downloaded onto a home computer or a laptop. The electronic paper is displayed in columns and it formats itself to fit any size screen."
If you actually read the press release from the Times on the subject, you realize that the headline of it's own story doesn't quite explain what's going on. Here's the quote that explains it better:
"The New York Times and Microsoft Corp. unveiled a prototype of a new PC-based software application for news distribution called Times Reader. Available for download in the coming months, Times Reader is a New York Times application that takes advantage of Microsoft(R) Windows Vista(TM), the next generation of the Windows(R) client operating system, to enhance the online and offline reading experience of The New York Times."
So the New York Times, has developed a software application that leverages components of Microsoft Vista to read the Times online, and that application will be distributed with every copy of Vista.
The NY Times, with Microsoft's help, will also make the Times Reader available to other publishers to format their content to be readable on PCs, laptops, and the new wave of UMPCs (Ultra-mobile PCs, aka "Origami"), which I've talked about positively of late.
As an aside, TeleRead asks an interesting question from a UMPC perspective:
"I’m curious what this means for the Origami-class machines. Will they miss out on the Vista software? Or will we see Origamis running Vista early on?"
There are already companies that provide stand-alone software to read off-line publications, including magazines online. A good example is Zinio, whose products I've used off and on over the years.
I'd encourage you to try out Zinio. It has some features like natural page turning, zooming in and out of text easily, etc., that I wish Adobe would learn from with it's world-dominating Acrobat Reader software.
Adobe has done a great job making Acrobat Reader a no-brainer for publishers of all kinds of content, but could do more to make the product more usable for mainstream readers.
Sony has also toiled hard in this market on the hardware front, having marketed a device for some time called the Librie as an "e-book reader" with little success. Here's an old review to explain some of the cons of that approach.
This spring, Sony is releasing a new version of the same idea called, what else, the "Sony Reader" (via The Engadget). Key advantages of the new version? More affordable than a PC/laptop or an UMPC at a price reportedly around $300 to $400, and most important: a higher resolution screen that allows a crisper, more "paper" like experience of reading.
Here's a brief review of the unit from Engadget if you'd like to know more.
And of course, the other option for almost a decade has been provided by Audible, where you can download thousands of book titles to hear rather than read, at the same price as the off-line books and Audio Books.
From a mainstream user point of view, the problems with most of the approaches to date have been two-fold. A combination of
- "technology not quite there" in terms of usability and cost, and
- the need for content publishers to protect their off-line business models by charging off-line prices for the same content online despite drastically different cost structures of the two models.
So the book, the magazine and the newspapers industries are struggling with the same "defend the old business model" issues as the music and TV/movie industries.
At least with the Sony Reader, the book publishers have supposedly agreed to charge "20-25%" less than off-line versions. How generous of them.
In the meantime, mainstream users are already reading more and more newspapers and magazines online, using the technology called..."the web".
As Jeff Jarvis puts it in his post titled "Two Steps Backward",
"Why not design the next frontier for the sharing of news that takes advantage of all the new opportunities technology permits — linking, conversation, multimedia, search, selectivity, depth, currency?
Oh, yeah, it was already invented. It’s the web. The only reasons to do this are to feed editorial ego, to think you’re maintaining editorial control, to try to dupe advertisers into thinking this the same as putting an ad in print, and to grasp desperately onto a past that is disappearing."
Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 also has a good post expounding on this point of view against semi-proprietary "digital readers".
I'm more positive on on-going software and hardware innovations to constantly improve the experience of consuming off-line media online. At the same time, I recognize that while specific instances of software and/or hardware solutions may not quite hit the mark, it shows the way for future improvement.
So I look forward to trying out the Times Reader, on and off a UMPC. And comparing it with Sony's new Reader. All the while seeing how Zinio and others respond.
Because some day, we'll find a solution, solid both from a technical and a business model point of view, that offers a path to transition today's publishing industry (newspapers, paid flyers, magazines, books and all), into a mainstream online world. And I'd almost hold my breath for that world.