Why E-readers Aren’t The Magic Pill Publishers Hope They Are

Amid the silly hype about e-readers (much of which comes from news publishers who think that content can once again be charged for when it’s locked down to newspaper-like mobile physicality), a rare expression of sense, from former Scotsman.com editor Stewart Kirkpatrick during a BBC Five Live discussion on Monday

“The e-book is a beautiful, beautiful dream, that newspapers will be saved because people who weren’t prepared to pay for content on one screen will magically decide they will on another screen. Maybe the tooth fairy will drop nuggets of gold on the newspaper industry as well!

Show host Richard Bacon couldn’t hide his affection for his own Kindle. But Kirkpatrick, who’s due to launch his own online/offline Scots newspaper, says they have “a presentation of information that is inferior to both the web and print“: “A different approach to print is the answer for newspapers.”

I agree with Kirkpatrick. Single-function, black-and-white e-readers like Kindle may be building a business right now but it’s likely to remain niche and short-term (will people really want to carry around a phone and a gadget that offers only a book/newspaper?)…

Pretty soon, richer, multi-function “tablets” will arrive that perform e-readers’ function, and more. Like the iPhone on which Apple’s forthcoming tablet is said to be based, they may be cut-down PCs, but will effectively be multimedia computers, capable of offering all the services and destinations a computer can, including the open internet through wireless web access. Minus a keyboard, they will be a portable computer for content consumers, not creators.

An “e-reader” is a mere neologism – conceived by those who seek to replicate an old, physical medium in modern, electronic form. But newspapers have spent the last 15 years divorcing their content from the physicality of their origin medium – not only does charging on what looks like a plastic newspaper fly in the face of that strategy, it’s also going to be rather difficult when few mechanisms beyond Kindle’s Whispernet truly exist – in the rush to build e-readers, manufacturers are all pulling in their own direction.

So, shouldn’t publishers skip thinking about “e-readers”, and consider the next generation of multi-purpose portable gadget?