CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The electronic newspaper, a large portable screen that is constantly updated with the latest news, has been a prop in science fiction for ages. It also figures in the dreams of newspaper publishers struggling with rising production and delivery costs, lower circulation and decreased ad revenue from their paper product.
While the dream device remains on the drawing board, Plastic Logic will introduce publicly on Monday its version of an electronic newspaper reader: a lightweight plastic screen that mimics the look--but not the feel--of a printed newspaper.
The device, which is unnamed, uses the same technology as the Sony eReader and
Richard Archuleta, the chief executive of Plastic Logic, said the display was big enough to provide a newspaperlike layout. "Even though we have positioned this for business documents, newspapers is what everyone asks for," Archuleta said.
The reader will go on sale in the first half of next year. Plastic Logic will not announce which news organization will display its articles on it until the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, when it will also reveal the price.
Kenneth A. Bronfin, president of Hearst Interactive Media, said, "We are hopeful that we will be able to distribute our newspaper content on a new generation of larger devices sometime next year." While he would not say what device the company's papers would use, he said, "we have a very strong interest in e-newspapers. We're very anxious to get involved."
Hearst Corp., the parent of Hearst Interactive Media, owns 16 daily newspapers, including The Houston Chronicle, The San Antonio Express, and The San Francisco Chronicle, and was an early investor in E Ink. The company already distributes electronic versions of some papers on the Amazon Kindle.
Newspaper companies have watched the technology closely for years. The ideal format, a flexible display that could be rolled or folded like a newspaper, is still years off, says E Ink. But it foresees color displays with moving images and interactive clickable advertising coming in only a few more years, according to Sriram K. Peruvemba, vice president for marketing for E Ink.
E Ink expects that within the next few years it will be able to create technology that allows users to write on the screen and view videos. At a recent demonstration at E Ink's headquarters here, the company showed prototypes of flexible displays that can create rudimentary colors and animated images. "By 2010, we will have a production version of a display that offers newspaperlike color," Peruvemba said.
If e-newspapers take off, the savings could be hefty. At the The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, print and delivery amount to 65 percent of the paper's fixed expenses, Bronfin said.
As an electronic device, newspapers can determine who is reading their paper, and even which articles are being read. Advertisers would be able to understand their audience and direct advertising to its likeliest customers.
While this raises privacy concerns, "these are future possibilities which we will explore," said Hans Brons, chief executive of iRex Technologies in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
The iRex, Kindle, and eReader prove the technology works. The big question for newspaper companies is how much people will pay for a device and the newspaper subscription for it.
Papers face a tough competitor: their own Web sites, where the information is free. And they have trained a generation of new readers to expect free news. In Holland, the iLiad comes with a one-year subscription for 599 euros ($855). The cost of each additional year of the paper is 189 euros ($270). NRC offers just one electronic edition of the paper a day, while Les Echos updates its iRex version 10 times a day.
A number of newspapers, including The New York Times, offer electronic versions through the Kindle device; The Times on the Kindle costs $14 a month, similar to the cost of other papers. "The New York Times Web site started as a replica of print, but it has now evolved," said Michael Zimbalist, vice president for research and development operations at The New York Times Company. "We expect to experiment on all of these platforms. When devices start approximating the look and feel of a newspaper, we'll be there as well," Zimbalist said.
Most electronic reading devices use E Ink's technology to create an image. Unlike liquid-crystal display of computer monitors and televisions, electronic paper technology does not need a backlight, remains displayed even when the power source runs down, and looks brighter, not dimmer, in strong light. It also draws little power from the device's battery.
Plastic Logic's first display, while offering a screen size that is 2.5 times larger than the Kindle, weighs just two ounces more and is about one-third the Kindle's thickness.
It uses a flexible, lightweight plastic, rather than glass, a technology first developed at Cambridge University in England. Plastic Logic, based in Mountain View, Calif., was spun off from that project.