I'm CEO of Newspeg.com, a social news-sharing platform. I've spent 20 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies. You can read more about me here.
Will News Tablets Finally Come Down from the Mountaintop?
With buzzgrowing over the Kindle 2 and its potential as a newspaper- and magazine-reading device, as well as a bookreader, it's worth remembering that the idea of an electronic tablet for reading news has a long and so far unsuccessful history.
More than 15 years ago, Knight-Ridder's Roger Fidler was famously advocating the creation of a tablet-like device as a way of distributing newspapers electronically. He's still at it, in fact, even though a lot of his vision of an electronic news future was overtaken, first by the Web and then by increasingly portable devices ranging from laptops to iPhones. (When I started out in new media in 1992, I heard regularly that no one would ever be able to read a newspaper on a computer while sitting on the john. Well, the iPhone has pretty much killed that argument!)
One of the problems with Fidler's vision was the notion that the newspaper-reader device had to come from a newspaper company. Needless to say, publishers aren't exactly technological wizzes (CueCat, anyone? Anyone?), and such development is probably better left to the Apples of the world. And now Amazon, whose Kindle offers a glimpse of what a portable electronic news reader might look like.
Undaunted by Knight-Ridder and Fidler's experiences, however, Hearst is trying to develop its own electronic reader, in partnership with E Ink, the company that supplies the core screen technology to Kindle. It's better to let somebody else spend the big development bucks on hardware and then take advantage of their success, rather than to try to develop a specialized product that others publishers may (or more likely may not) also choose to adopt.
While Kindle has gotten good buzz, it's hardly a ubiquitous product; indeed, it seems to be mostly beloved by journalists and a certain class of upscale book readers, and its sales–said to be in the hundreds of thousands–are a fraction of more successful devices like the iPhone.
My guess is that the Kindle is a steppingstone, transitional product, one that points the way toward the portable electronic news reader of the future, but not a big success itself. Apple is rumored to be working on a large-format version of the iPhone that will out-Kindle the Kindle and do many more things; doubtless there are other devices still in the R&D labs–including thin, flexible, roll-up screens–that will provide even better portability and quality. Devices that do much more than just present text on a screen also are likely to be more successful (again, see the Swiss Army knife-like iPhone).
What Roger Fidler dreamed of two decades ago, and Amazon is dreaming of today, still isn't here yet. But it's probably coming, in one form or another. Just not from a publisher.