Sony's new portable reader.

June 13, 2006 | Post Archive

Twenty years ago, a paperless world would have been hard to imagine—outside of science fiction, anyway. But technology is always on the move, and the direction it seems to be going in has little to do with a paper trail. And with an increasing number of publications moving from print to screen via the Internet, although not entirely, a world gone digital isn’t too hard to envision.

It’s no secret that the newspaper industry is dying -- losing more readers every year to the online market. In an effort to save their media empires, newspapers (and the huge corporations behind them) are seeking innovative ways to protect, secure and boost both readership and revenue.

A newspaper, or magazine, for that matter, that hasn’t already coupled traditional print applications with an Internet version of their product is hard to find these days. And while having a presence on the Web has helped, it hasn’t solved the industry’s problems. That’s where tech companies like Microsoft, Sony and iRex come in. They’re developing a new generation of portable readers specifically for newspapers. The devices will be made of inexpensive screens capable of displaying text and images in higher resolution than previous generations of portable readers. They also promise to be easier on the eyes than computers, PDAs or cell phones.

Microsoft’s chairman, Bill Gates, demonstrated the software giant’s attempt to solve the newspaper industry’s woes at the American Society of Newspaper Editors Conference in April. Gates’ solution is the “Times Reader,” a prototype application that preserves the image quality of newspapers on screen.

According to Reuters, iRex and Sony use technology created by E Ink. Kevin Bonsor explains how electronic ink works in his article "How Electronic Ink Will Work.”

E Ink Corporation

Electronic ink can be applied to the same materials that regular ink can be printed on. In the case of a digital book, the pages would be made out of some kind of ultra-thin plastic. The ink covers the entire page, separated by cells that resemble the cells on graph paper. Think of these cells as pixels on your computer screen, with each cell wired to microelectronics embedded in this plastic sheet. These microelectronics are then used to apply a positive or negative charge to the microcapsules to create the desired text or images.

Newspapers are looking for a flexible, digitally enabled medium that not only preserves the portability of a newspaper but some of its feel as well. Currently, E Ink’s technology is functional only with more inflexible mediums like glass and printed circuit boards. But if all goes according to plan, Plastic Logic of the UK will produce the flexible screens the newspapers are gunning for as soon as 2007.

But the question remains: will anyone use it? I did a quick survey with a few friends earlier today. No doubt, early-adopting technophiles will snatch up the readers, one friend said. And perhaps a few deep-pocketed environmentalists will subscribe. But the overall consensus between us is that the availability of news via the Internet, with the help of news aggregator sites and RSS readers, makes the technology inherently redundant. Select newspaper publishers around the world will begin testing the portable readers on their subscribers later this year.

As the newspaper industry faces up to the digital revolution, will it eventually be relegated to online publication? What will the development of portable technology do to other print applications like magazines or books? Only time will tell. Given the rate of technological development, the answer shouldn’t be too far off.