E-reader Five of the largest US newspaper and magazine publishers have announced plans to develop a digital e-reader format that melds the visual aesthetics of print with the capabilities of online media.

The companies face a hard job selling digital publications to a public used to abundant free online content. A joint venture between publishing powerhouses Time, News Corp, Conde Nast, Hearst and Meredith, the project will launch next year. It's designed to offer a superior user experience to current e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, which are fine for reading books but ill-equipped to handle video, high-resolution colour images and other media elements that today's web-browsing readers take for granted.

The new digital format is targeted at a new generation of touchscreen-equipped smart phones, e-readers, and tablet computers, including the just-announced Fusion Garage JooJoo (previously known as the CrunchPad), and the anticipated-but-unannounced Apple tablet, which many industry watchers expect to debut in 2010.

The e-reader format could offer magazine and newspaper publishers an opportunity to regain the legions of paying subscribers who've migrated to free content online. The concept is pretty slick, as this video demonstrates.

By combining easy-to-read magazine-style layouts with high-res colour images and videos, and links to additional content - such as the fantasy football and statistics examples used in the video - publishers could provide an experience superior to today's websites, particularly on large touchscreen displays.

Hardware failures

But "large" is the key word here. The Sports Illustrated (SI) example, for instance, may prove visually stunning on, say, a 10in Apple tablet - should one exist - but difficult to appreciate on the iPhone's relatively tiny display. And what about e-readers? Well, nobody's come out with a colour screen yet, and for good reason. A greyscale, non-backlit display means less eyestrain and longer battery life. But the dazzling SI demo demands better hardware than that.

Will today's web user, accustomed to free content, be willing to fork over some cash for an enhanced digital experience? That remains to be seen. In fact, nobody's sure if consumers will take to tablet computers, which could be the ideal platform for the publishers' new format.

Other burning questions:

  • Using the SI example, how good would those sport videos look if viewed via a 3G connection on an Apple tablet?
  • Would participating publishers shut down their free websites? Perhaps not, but companies might erect some type of pay wall, or greatly reduce the amount of free content available online. Then again, the latter might happen anyway.
  • Do commuters want to lug around a large tablet in addition to a smartphone? A phone is easy to carry. A tablet probably isn't.
  • If publishers offer a tablet directly to subscribers, what would they charge? Perhaps a multi-year subsidised subscription plan would apply. But would you sign up?

See also:

Sony Reader vs Amazon's Kindle

Amazon Kindle DX review

Amazon Kindle 2 review

Video of the Amazon Kindle DX

5 reasons the Joo Joo (CrunchPad) will fail

PC World