The Amazon Kindle: the magical convergence device newspapers have been waiting for?

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Amazon has unveiled its “wireless reading device”, the Kindle (right). At 7.5in by 5.3in it’s designed to combine portability with a large enough screen to allow comfortable reading of a lot of text. Bezos & Co hope that people will read books on this device in the way they don’t on computers, whi

ch are not known for their “in the pocket” handiness.

When I’m on the move I read content through my Nokia E61 (left), which has a 320 x 240 pixel screen. It is certainly easier to read text on it than on a standard mobile phone but given the choice I’d still rather read paper. And this is what I think users will find with the Kindle. Yes, it’s more portable than a computer. Yes, it’s more readable than a phone or PDA. But it’s still not as convenient or pleasant to read as a book.

However, Amazon are incentivising their product with some clever pricing. They’re selling Kindle versions of books cheaper than the printed products (Run by Ann Patchett is $6 cheaper). This is where the advantage of the Kindle lies. Without printing and distribution costs, ebooks can costs a lot less. The success of Amazon’s reader will depend on whether the diminished ease-of-reading offer by a screen versus a book is offset by the lower price.

All this gets interesting for journalists because, as well as 80,000+ books, the Amazon Kindle offers access to the following:

  • Top U.S. newspapers including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post; top magazines including TIME, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes—all auto-delivered wirelessly.
  • Top international newspapers from France, Germany, and Ireland; Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and The Irish Times.
  • More than 250 top blogs from the worlds of business, technology, sports, entertainment, and politics, including BoingBoing, Slashdot, TechCrunch, ESPN’s Bill Simmons, The Onion, Michelle Malkin, and The Huffington Post.

It is worth noting that all of these are paid for services – unlike the web versions of these publications.

This aspect of the Kindle is particularly interesting because many in journalism have predicted the coming of a convergence device that combined readability with portability and provide better revenue models than the web. One such expert is new media sage Vin Crosbie (now Adjunct Professor of Visual and Interactive Communications at Syracuse University) who was quoted thus in the Online Journalism Review in 2002:

Vin Crosbie … goes so far as to predict that Web publishing will be subsumed and overwhelmed by a third wave of electronic publishing. (The first wave of proprietary online services, brought to you by Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online in the 1980s and early ’90s, was followed by the Web’s second wave.)

And what will make up this killer third wave? “Pervasive portable media,” says Crosbie, a media consultant in Greenwich, Conn. “The Web will become the lesser online medium for commercial publications beginning in the second half of this decade.”

Next-generation portable devices — which are just now hitting store shelves — will have several built-in advantages over the Web as a publishing medium, he says. Chief among them:

* They’re push media. Third-wave online newspaper editions will be delivered to devices wirelessly and automatically each day (up to several times a day) instead of relying on the user to fetch the news one page at a time. Even the most successful online newspaper, The New York Times on the Web, sees the average user stop by only 3.6 days a month, according to the Times’ latest stats.

* Prospects for advertising are more favorable. On the Web, publishers face a bottomless advertising hole with ads that are noisy, distracting and ignored. On a mobile device, newspaper editions can be formatted in a graphical layout that locks in a limited amount of display ad space, commanding premium rates.

* For the most part, the Web requires us to be tethered to a PC or laptop. Not so online publishing for mobile devices. We’re a mobile society, and we’d like to take our digital news with us.

The coming mobile revolution will require newsrooms to undergo a sea change in strategic thinking.

“Eight years ago, when you talked about online publishing, the mission for online news publishers was to use any combination of software and online technologies to promulgate the newspaper’s mission,” Crosbie says in a phone interview. “Since then, those efforts have calcified so that online publishing now means Web publishing. Newspapers have got to stop the tunnel vision and go back to original concept: Online publishing is the Web plus many other things.”

Of course, things have moved on in the five years since that article was written. RSS feeds have made the point about push vs pull redundant. The rise of mobile phones with half decent screens and the arrival of handheld gaming devices with internet access both mean that accessing the web no longer requires anyone to be tethered to anything.

However, the point about advertising display and layout of content remains valid half a decade on. This is important because the big problem for newspapers is plugging the gap between falling offline revenues and much smaller – though growing – online revenues. Perhaps the Kindle is another faltering step towards a device that will square that particular circle.

That said, the model for newspapers on the Kindle is not the answer. I can get the New York Times free through my Nokia’s web browser. Why would I pay to read it on a slightly bigger screen?

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7 Comments

Filed under Journalism, newmedia

7 responses to “The Amazon Kindle: the magical convergence device newspapers have been waiting for?

  1. I love digital technologies to help readers. The main problem with reading books etc. on phone, palm tops is the battery life and small screen. Besides, those readers cannot be all that great because reading software is part of the device designed to do dozens of other things.

    I have a palm Tungston E2. It offers much longer battery life, almost- what they say- 7 hours (i think in reality its more like 4-5 hours). But even this I find quite annoyingly short. Second, issue is of course with the screen. Even a small paperback has much larger page.

    And of course, traditional books are so handy, come in different sizes and formats, no batteries to charge, the joys of flicking through the pages etc. So, if I have to have some digital solutions it has to come real close to the book. I read Kindle offers more than 7,000 page turns of battery life. This is awesome. The screen has a book like black and white look. And it has no other distracting functions.

    As for reading New York Times on your phone for free, I guess, you still have to pay for the amount of data you download? Other than that, I cannot say more because I don’t own it. And as I am in New Zealand, I am sure I will be locked out of its functionalities and downloading functions…just as I bemoan not being able to enjoy great radio services like XM and Sirius… 😦

  2. Sony’s reader seems to be the real competitor. I also remember Franklin’s bookman book cards (and readers) had done serious work into marketing portable book readers but that never really took off in a big way. I think Franklin people could have introduced something like Kindle. But well…

  3. The Kindle reminds me of the computer Deep Thought in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It was built to work out the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. And after seven and half millions years of calculation it came up with … “42”. Upon protestations from its creators (or rather its creators’ great, great, great, great, etc grandkids), it said that what they were actually looking for was not the answer but the question. It then said that it could not work that out buy could build a computer that could.

    The Kindle is not the answer but it’s a step in the right direction. As is the Reuters mobile journalism kit.

    The point about the cost of data transfer is a good one but for most people that will be much less than the NYT Kindle subscription. (I’m on a “web and walk” UK tariff from T-Mobile, which gives me “all you can eat” web and email.)

  4. Scott

    Digitization of the publications is the emerging trend and most of the publishers are using many ways to publish their print editions. Apart from the news through mobile, there is another way to send the news through RSS, pod casting and these services I saw in http://www.pressmart.net provides the digital editions of print publications along with the above. Publishers should have these kind services to increase their publications.

  5. Could be this blog’s best article yet!!

  6. This surely makes perfect sense!!

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