Tabloids as tablets? Here comes e-paper

Is the death knell for paper ringing out across the world? Lou Thomas takes a peek into the future and discovers the e-newspaper could be here in two years

EARLIER THIS WEEK Microsoft chairman Bill Gates told The Independent: "The tablet is the place where it can all come together. I definitely see the tablet, whether it’s textbooks going digital or the newspaper going digital or magazines going digital.

I see the person with the very, very thin, — we don’t have it yet today — very inexpensive high-bandwidth, wireless device… where a lot of the print and video consumption will take place."

But if we don’t have it yet today, how far away is it?

It seems that e-paper has been the "next big thing"

for years. How much longer do we have to wait?

Fujitsu has been working on colour e-paper as a stand-alone product since 2000, while devices to read newspapers electronically (e-readers) have been available in Japan since 2004. Among the first wave of e-readers was Sony’s Librie, soon to be superseded by the same company’s helpfully named Reader. This will be launched in the US next month, alongside Tainjin’s Jinke V2, released in China last November.

Early e-readers were beset by problems ranging from digital rights management to slow page-turning speeds and poor battery life, but this month 200 subscribers of Belgian financial newspaper De Tijd will trial the title on the iRex Iliad, the first e-reader available in Europe.

The company was set up to develop a screen using e-ink which, at first glance, looks like an LCD screen but is actually made up of black and white oppositely charged particles suspended in a solution of oil, over a film substrate. The e-reader device itself is the same shape and size as a DVD box and is reassuringly light.

A push of a button will automatically download any subscribed newspapers or magazines to the e-reader from a secure server.

On the demo version of The New York Times shown to Press Gazette, the front page appears instantly, identical to how the paper looks in print, complete with photos condensed onto the e-reader’s screen. To read an article, you touch the screen with a plastic stylus and the story fills the screen. As you read an article, you can touch words and phrases that are underlined on screen to get an explanation, like a link on a website. To turn a page, you push a thin bar by the left of the screen and the page refreshes instantly. The contrast on the screen is as easy on the eyes as reading a newspaper. For those preferring colour to 16 shades of grey, colour e-readers will be available next year.

The iRex will be rolled out at 12 newspapers in Holland, Germany and China by the end of 2006.

No UK newspaper groups have signed up with the company for any specific deal, but the UK agent for iRex has says the company has been in talks with "a number of very interested newspapers".

This interest has been picking up speed since the beginning of the year. In January, German-based global newspaper trade association, iFra, announced that 20 newspaper groups across the world, including the New York Times Company and the Telegraph Group, would be collaborating with technology companies on a three-year e-news initiative. The idea is for newspaper publishers to take more control of the changing technology and ways of providing content by meeting for seminars and trade shows and commissioning consumer research.

Telegraph Group head of new media, Annelies van den Belt, says: "It is very useful to talk with other publishers in other countries on what they face and how they solve their issues and make the most of their opportunities. What we saw at the iFra conference on e-readers was very encouraging, in the sense that a lot of the teething problems are not there with this product."

The Guardian’s director of digital publishing, Simon Waldman, urged caution before rushing to embrace e-readers however. He says: "You have to slightly step back at the moment. There is a lot of new gadgetry coming onto the market, and a lot is going to happen between now and the point where you have flexible screens able to access the ubiquitous wireless network — which is when it becomes an interesting phenomenon."

"Things like this will ultimately become very popular once the economics are right," he continues.

"Do I believe we will have thin screens in the future?

Absolutely. But do I believe we’ll be looking at a replica of the newspaper on them? Probably not, because I think things are moving away from that.

You’re much more likely to want smart cocktails of content from a variety of sources than an individual newspaper."

He adds that e-readers offered a very flat representation of news content at a time when people want more from newspaper publishers.

Van den Belt highlights differences between the UK and other European circulation markets. She says: "In this country if they’re not part of the topline total ABC figure, national newspaper publishers cannot afford to spend a lot of time on them because they are not counting towards circulation. It’s different on the continent, where 90 per cent of newspapers are being read by subscribers. We have a different market here."

She adds: "I’ve seen the e-reader which De Tijd is using, I think it’s fantastic, [but] I’m not sure if the timing is right yet for it in the UK. In this market we can afford to take a little bit of time to find out what is the best device and build a potential plan around it. We will be looking into them."

The other option for e-newspaper junkies is e-paper. Fujitsu is developing colour e-paper, the first commercial uses of which are set to be on advertising billboards.

Fujitsu says an e-newspaper should be possible in 2008 or 2009. Here in the UK, Cambridge’s Plastic Logic Limited is also developing a prototype e-paper and expects to see the fruits of their labour in time for some healthy competition with Fujitsu (see box-out).

Whether the British or Japanese company gets there first, it looks like the days of endless folding paper on a packed commuter train are almost over.

E-Paper: A Product Guide

Philips Polymer Vision Readius: The fancy pants e-paper outsider is the rollable display Readius, made by Philips Polymer Vision. Sadly, it’s just a concept product, but Philips Polymer Vision senior communications manager Hans Driessen says: “We created the Readius to show the possibilities in a real working device. A great enthusiasm came from the market, so we considered that we should launch this type of device. We plan to start our production by the end of this year, so products and mobile devices with the rollable display could hit the market as early as the first half of 2007.

iRex Iliad: The Iliad will be available to buy from the iRex website from April for €649 (£450). Although it comes with no newspaper content, it will include pre-loaded e-books and the now ubiquitous Su Doku. Book publishers are believed to be very interested in offering content to download to the Iliad. It weighs a jacket-friendly 390 grams and is 155mm wide x 217 high x 16 deep (A5–sized). The screen has a 8.1 inch (202.5mm) diagonal display. Its 224MB internal flash memory can hold 30 days’ worth of newspapers or 200 paperback books, and there is provision for expansion in memory.

Fujitsu colour e-paper: Fujitsu’s colour e-paper is rewriteable, bendable and will not be based in an e-reader device, just a stand-alone sheet of 0.8mm layered plastic. It has been developed so that it can be bent without any blurring or distortion. It will be used in advertising, pricing in shops and electronic timetables, before being used in e-newspaper. Fujitsu’s Jun Ueda said: “We have introduced our technology to many press companies and
publishers. Many of the newspaper companies want to decrease the amount of printing, and delivery cost is also something they want to improve on. We think e-paper might cut their delivery and printing costs.”

Plastic Logic prototype e-paper: Plastic Logic marketing executive, Anusha Nirmalananthan, says: “We make the flexible displays that other companies then use to make finished products. This is a concept design, an example of the kind of thing it might turn into in a year or two, when the integration is complete. We’re planning on getting a manufacturing company on board to do a pilot line and increase production levels. We hope to have a partner on board by the end of this year and start turning out displays by the end of 2007 with our first product,
which is likely to be an e-reader/newspaper, commercially available by Christmas 2008.”

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