Monday, April 24, 2006

Newspapers worldwide are testing e-devices


Via International Herald Tribune

Great story by Doreen Carvajal about the implementation of the technology on different papers all over the world.


This month, De Tijd, a Belgian financial newspaper, started testing versions of electronic paper, a device with low- power digital screens embedded with "digital ink," millions of microscopic capsules the size of a human hair with organic material that display light or dark images in response to electrical charges.

Those tests will be followed this year with others by Les Echos in Paris and the international newspaper trade group IFRA in Germany, which is poised for trials this year in a number of countries, including the United States, where The New York Times plans to take part in a trial with 300 devices.

The International Herald Tribune, which is owned by The New York Times Co., is also in discussions to make subscriptions available this year with the Philip Electronics-made iRex Technologies devices that the Belgian newspaper is testing, according to Michael Golden, publisher of the IHT.

Bruno Rives, founder of Tebaldo, a consulting company based in Paris, said "It's been a long process." Tebaldo is working with Les Echos to customize the economic journal into an e-paper and is advising Havas Group on advertising uses on e-paper.

"I prefer to see it as the evolution of paper," Rives said, rather than the next stage of newspapers.

For publishers confronting declining newspaper circulation in most parts of the world, the devices offer the tantalizing promise of reaching more readers, sparing some forests and saving on printing and distribution costs. But after some highly publicized e-book machines failed to take off in the late 1990s, those long-held hopes have remained elusive.

The difference this time, developers and supporters say, is that the screens on the new hardware are designed to reflect rather than transmit light, making them more like paper, readable in sunlight or a dark subway train.

The devices, smaller than a hardcover book, can be updated through Internet connections, wired or wireless. Their touch screens also can double as notebooks to jot down information or to download books. Pages are turned with the touch of a button.

De Tijd, with 40,000 readers in Belgium, is testing a device called the iLiad eReader, which is the creation of iRex, the Philips spinoff. IRex partnered with E Ink, a Massachusetts-based team of chemists and engineers that developed the microcapsule technology. De Tijd is basically fitting its traditional print format to the devices screen, not changing the style of its newspaper.

Twenty-five De Tijd readers received free e-paper devices on April 14, the start of a three-month trial that ultimately will investigate the habits of 200 readers who volunteered to take part after answering a De Tijd advertisement. Most of the participants are highly educated men, selected to match the demographic profile of its print readers, who are usually among the first adopters of new technology.

"We know that our readers like to have their newspaper before they go to work, and we offer them paper newspapers before 7:30 a.m., but that's not enough," said Kris Laenens, De Tijd's manager of the project. The newspaper, he added needed to offer service to readers wherever and whenever they want it.

De Tijd has joined with the telecommunications company Belgacom, advertising agencies like I-Merge and Agency.com, and Belgian universities in Brussels and Leuven to evaluate how consumers use their e-papers. "We've got six or seven partners to try to come up with a business model," Laenens said.

At this point, the e-paper cannot display color, offering just 16 shades of gray, and the screens are rigid, not the flexible, bendable plastic of a water bottle that is in development.

Those weaknesses turn off some newspaper publishers, according to e- paper developers like E Ink, which said some newspapers were waiting for more sophisticated devices in preparation in Japan and China that are bendable and weigh little more than a piece of paper. "The attitude is that before they figure it out, let's make sure people want to read these," said Darren Bischoff, a marketing manager for E Ink.

Publishing executives at Play Bac Presse, a Paris-based publisher of four French newspapers for children and teenagers, considered whether to try e- paper, according to François Dufour, editor in chief and a company founder.

Ultimately, they chose to wait for color versions, which they consider vital, along with prices hovering below $100. When Sony e-readers with the microcapsule technology start selling this year in Europe and the United States, they are expected to retail for as much as $400 and to be able to download books, newspapers and podcasts.

The devices may come only in shades of gray, but they are enough to inspire some advertising agencies to take part in the tests to try out the possibilities.

"How do we deal with the lack of color?" said Johan Hermans, managing director of Agency.com in Brussels. "Can you advertise linked to the profile of the user - for example, if they're interested in the automobile sector?"

In theory, advertisements could change by time of day, he said, letting agencies avoid showing beer ads in the morning or coffee ads in the evening. "All these types of things we're trying to examine," Hermans said.

Les Echos, which is owned by Pearson, the parent company of The Financial Times, is taking a different approach than the Belgians. Instead of shifting the print format directly to a device, the company is customizing information with a different look from its traditional paper format, much as it would for its Web site version.

The newspaper's aim is to begin a test project this year with as many as 500 readers. Les Echos plans to use the Sony e-readers at first, but the intention is to make the newspaper readable on a variety of devices.

In the initial test, participants will be given their devices. "After that, we'll see," said Philippe Jannet, director of electronic publishing for Les Echos.

Since Les Echos introduced a prototype of its e-newspaper in March, Jannet said, other French newspapers including Le Monde, La Parisienne and the sports daily L'Équipe have joined to take part in the research.

Meanwhile, IFRA, based in Darmstadt, Germany, is pursuing what it calls an "eNews initiative" with 21 newspapers from 13 countries, including The New York Times, which will be testing electronic devices as part of the project.

In May, the group will meet to plot the first phase of e-paper testing, said Jochen Dieckow, who is in charge of business and news media research for the newspaper trade organization. Their goal is simply to evaluate the new market for e-newspapers.

"Many publishers take it seriously, and we see it as a new media channel," Dieckow said.

The group is working with iRex as well as Plastic Logic, in Cambridge, England, which is developing plastic page-sized screens that can carry images.

But will any of these devices become the next iPod for news hounds?

Initially, some major booksellers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble were reluctant to sell the new Sony e-readers, given the tepid market of the past. Just this month, though, the Borders book chain announced that it would sell the e-reader in 200 stories this summer, although no newspapers other than Les Echos have yet announced that they will be carried on the devices.

Rives, of Tebaldo, said he expected that by next year the average price of a reader with a hard screen would fall to €100, or $123, from more than €400.

The retail cost will be even lower ultimately for thin plastic versions because of the lower cost of the materials involved, he said. Tests of those are under way now in Japan by companies like Bridgestone and Fujitsu.

And what he expects by 2008 is not all that different from a sci-fi thriller scene, vintage 2054.

"Imagine an application where you have flexible paper in your pocket and you want to have 10 to 15 minutes of reading on the Metro," Rives said. "It will cost you about €10. We think if you really fold it and use it every day, it will last three months."

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