Digital Publications May Be A Hard Sell

Five of the largest U.S. newspaper and magazine publishers have announced plans to develop a new digital e-reader format that would meld the visual esthetics of print with the rich capabilities of online media, including video, social networking, touch input, and games. A joint venture of publishing powerhouses Time Inc., News Corp., Conde Nast, Hearst Corp., and Meredith Corp., the project will launch next year. It's designed to offer a superior user experience to current e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, which are fine for book-reading but ill-equipped to handle video, high-resolution color images, and other media elements that today's Web-browsing readers take for granted.

The new digital format is targeted at a new generation of touchscreen-equipped smart phones, e-readers, and tablet computers, including the just-announced Fusion Garage JooJoo (previously known as the CrunchPad), and the anticipated-but-unannounced Apple tablet, which many industry watchers expect to debut sometime in 2010.

The e-reader format could offer magazine and newspaper publishers an opportunity to regain the legions of paying subscribers who've migrated to free content online. The concept is pretty slick, as demonstrated by this Sports Illustrated Tablet demo:

By combining easy-to-read magazine-style layouts with high-res color images and videos, and links to additional content--such as the fantasy football and statistics examples used in the video--publishers could provide an experience superior to today's websites, particularly on large touchscreen displays.

But "large" is the key word here. The SI example, for instance, may prove visually stunning on, say, a 10-inch Apple tablet--should one exist--but difficult to appreciate on the iPhone's relatively tiny display. And what about e-readers? Well, nobody's come out with a color screen yet, and for good reason. A grayscale, non-backlit display means less eyestrain and longer battery life. But the dazzling SI demo demands better hardware than that.

Will today's Web user, accustomed to free content, be willing to fork over some cash for an enhanced digital experience? That remains to be seen. In fact, nobody's sure if consumers will take to tablet computers, which could be the ideal platform for the publishers' new format.

Other burning questions:

· Using the SI example, how good would those sports videos look if viewed via an AT&T 3G connection on an Apple tablet?

· Would participating publishers shutter their free websites? Perhaps not, but companies might erect some type of pay wall, or greatly reduce the amount of free content available online. Then again, the latter might happen anyway.

· Do commuters want to lug around a large tablet in addition to a smartphone? A phone is easy to carry. A tablet, probably not.

· If publishers offer a tablet directly to subscribers, what would they charge? Perhaps a multi-year subsidized subscription plan would apply. But would you sign up?

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci ) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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