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Feb. 9, 2009, 12:45 p.m.

E-readers: Why won’t the future hurry up and get here already?

Today was a day for dueling e-book readers. Amazon just announced its update to the Kindle, which is significantly sexier than its predecessor (although, at $359, it’s no less reasonably priced). And market newcomer Plastic Logic announced its first content partners for its larger-screened device, which include USA Today and the Financial Times.

We’ve been hearing for years now that the future of news distribution was in portable e-paper devices. And while news on Kindles or similar gadgets is still a very small niche, there is some real momentum gathering in the news business’ big sister, book publishing.

I spoke recently with Russ Wilcox, the CEO and president of E-Ink — the Cambridge company behind a lot of the sector’s technology. He said that it made sense to introduce the tech through book readers. Because earlier displays required a second to reload, that lag imitated the time it took to turn a books page and could have been frustrating with the back-and-forth that comes with reading multiple news stories. And those devices’ text-only environment were a decent facsimile of the book-reading experience.

Why is e-paper interesting to news organizations? First, it’s a potential solution to the decoupling of content and advertising that happens online. As Wilcox put it: “Think of a newspaper as three things: You’ve got the container, you’ve got the news in it, and you’ve got the advertising. You’ve got those things physically bundled together in a way that can’t be physically separated. What’s happening with digital media is that those things can be easily separated.”

On a Kindle-like device, eventually, ads and content could be packaged in a way that doesn’t leave the advertising skipped over, as it often is on the web. And it could push people to think of their news consumption as part of a package deal again — thinking of The New York Times as a packaged good, rather than as a random conglomeration of articles your brother can email you links to.

Second, it’s a possible route to getting readers to pay for the news again. As we reported in November, the Times has more than 10,000 subscribers on the Kindle, each paying $13.99 a month — even though all that content is available for free on the Times’ web site. That’s the beginning of a revenue stream lots of newspapers would love to have.

And it could help solve the portability issue. Not everybody spends all day sitting in front of a computer at work, and for many, the portability of the print newspaper package is a big plus.

So after a decade-plus of hype, what can we reasonably expect from the e-paper world in the next year or two?

Color. E-Ink and other e-paper manufacturers will likely get color displays to market in 2010, Wilcox said — something that could help with a potential advertising model.

More powerful displays. In 2009 E-Ink will introduce a display that diminishes the delay time the comes from moving from one page to the next on e-paper systems. (The new Kindle promises page turns 20 percent faster than the old one.) There’ll also be larger displays than currently available, likely in plastic rather than glass.

Flexibility. At Arizona State University’s Flexible Display Center, researchers recently introduced a display that flexes easily and is durable.

What’s still still unclear is how big the market penetration will be for devices like these. Three or four hundred dollars is still a significant price for most people. Wilcox wonders whether the move by a number of universities to equip its students with e-readers might lead to a pipeline that journalism organizations can exploit. And he suggests advertisers could some day subsidize the cost of getting devices in people’s hands more cheaply. But nearly everyone has a cell phone and a computer — we’ll have to see whether the Kindle or its kind can make a significant dent in those devices, or whether we’ll be waiting another decade or so for “the future” to kick in.

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2009, 12:45 p.m.
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