The Economist and e-readers

This week’s issue of The Economist has a lot of stuff about e-readers in it. There’s the cover story in Technology Quarterly about new display technologies (how can you make a low-power but full-colour screen) and there’s a Business story about the new joint venture between several American publishers to make a sort of iTunes/Hulu for magazine content. Neither of these pieces was written by me, though I edited both of them. My own take can be found in The World in 2010, in which I have two pieces on e-readers: one about the market in general, and a second about whether they can “save” newspapers. (Short answer: not in 2010.) I wrote these pieces in June and then spent the next six months updating them almost every week, because things were moving so fast. I now have more than just an academic/journalistic interest in the subject, having just been put in charge of The Economist‘s editorial content for mobile editions. It’s an exciting area: everything is up for grabs and it’s all moving very fast. Just like the web in 1994 or so.

A lot now hinges on what Apple does. I expect the tablet to be announced in January (upstaging everything at CES in the process) and to ship in April/May. It will have a 10-inch LCD touchscreen. It will have both a Wi-Fi-only and a Wi-Fi/cellular radio version (ie, a big iPod touch and a big iPhone). These versions will then be sold through the same channels as iPods and iPhones. Apple will add e-books/e-magazines to the iTunes Store, using the iTunes LP format (based on HTML, not Flash or EPUB or anything else). Developers will have three or four months to recode their apps for the larger screen, to ensure that tens of thousands of apps are available at launch. Lots of publishers will sign on, because Apple will offer more generous terms than Amazon.

These are all my best guesses; if you are in the mood for more predictions I recommend this post by Sarah Rotman Epps of Forrester, who is very good. Anyway, 2010 is going to be an even bigger year for e-readers than 2009 was. People have been asking me which one to buy for Christmas, and my answer is: none of them. The current crop will look obsolete by the end of January (there will be dozens of new models at CES). Your move, Apple.

2 comments
  1. Since you’re the one formatting (correct?) our magazine for all of those things, here is my gripe with the Kindle, on which I read the Atlantic and the NYT (though not, obviously, The Economist):

    It’s impossible in the NYT Magazine or the Atlantic to know where you are within an article, ie how far along. With books (but not chapters) that easy to see. Not with mags. So that’s a big disadvantage to the sensuous paper version. We don’t know how much awaits us, we can’t psychologically budget. There should be a little status bar or something. it could appear and disappear as one swipes. What do I know.

    Also, the NYT is terrible about it various headlines and subheadlines: Eg, in the NYT Mag the “Questions for …” page. ON the kIndle, you can’t see who the person being interviewed is. You have to infer it. The name does not appear in the title.

    • tomstandage said:

      This is probably not the place for a discussion of e-reader user-interface design, close though that subject is to my heart. I don’t have a Kindle, but on the Kindle app there’s a “location” number you can summon at the bottom of the page to see how far through a book you are. I agree that not have constant feedback on an electronic device is a drawback compared with paper.

      But on iPhone apps the convention (from Safari, and implemented by default in e-reader apps that display HTML) is to show a scroll bar on the right-hand side that only appears when you scroll. This shows you how much of the document you can see and how far through it you are. This seems to be what you’re asking for. The Kindle, I assume, would not be able to do this because it uses discrete pages and cannot update the display very quickly; it uses static pages, and an indication of how far through you are might not be something that you want to have on the screen all the time.

      My favourite UI tweak: the WSJ app lets you swipe sideways to move between stories. The NYT app doesn’t. But I like it and I hope it becomes a standard. Of course, all these conventions will be up for grabs again when the Apple tablet appears.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: