Friday, May 08, 2009

Can The Big Amazon Kindle DX Save The Newspapers?

This week, trumpets sounded to herald the arrival of the bigger and better Amazon Kindle model DX. It's being touted by some as the new high-technology newspaper. In a way it is, but can a nearly $500 gadget the size of a magazine stop the death spiral of newspapers going dark across the country?

No. It's way too late, too expensive and too edgy for that. If newspapers wanted to move to an electronic paper delivery system to replace newsprint, they should have started deploying these a decade ago when they were fat and happy. Now that many are teetering on bankruptcy and others are going over the edge, technology isn't going to do the trick. For many papers nothing will, short of a phoenix-like rise from the ashes based on a new business model.

Not that the Kindle and Kindle DX are a bad idea. They're a great idea. They come just in time to save the book industry and perhaps much of the magazine industry. The idea of a book as a block of sliced paper that you need to go fetch in a special "book" store or have shipped to you in the mail is an old fashioned notion. The book is a collection of valuable written information or entertainment worth paying to have. As text and perhaps pictures, it is an ideal product to digitize and transfer instantly through the airwaves.

So will the Kindle replace books? It and its ilk are very likely to do that in the long run. But it's going to take decades, not a couple of years. Remember music stores? Every town had one or two when many of us were growing up. Not anymore. The physical music medium of CDs has moved to a department within a big box store. More and more, music isn't "records" or "albums" or "CDs." It's a data package you download to your computer or cellphone, perhaps deployed to another device such as an iPod or MP3 player.

That's where books are going. But book stores will be around until the tipping point is reached where more people have electronic readers than not and they refuse to buy a non-electronic version. The Kindle may be the iPod of electronic paper readers, but you can bet there will soon be a flood of competitors in all sizes and price ranges to hasten the conversion process.

Magazines and newspapers will indeed be lucky recipients of this trend. Already, you can get your newspaper subscription electronically from many of the bigger papers. The Kindle DX with its larger size screen and PDF rendering capability will help magazines make the transition. What's missing is color, unimportant to novels, many how-to and technical books, and a lot of newspapers, but probably necessary before magazines start moving off the grocery store racks and into the airwaves.

Interestingly, the real growth market for the large format PDF-reading Kindle has nothing to do with consumer books or newspapers. It's the forests worth of technical service manuals, blueprints, wiring diagrams, parts lists, safety sheets, medical references and so on. If it was suitable for microfilm storage, it should be perfect for an electronic reader. What's really going to goose this application is two way communications ability to not only request the desired information but order parts, get schedules, see how-to videos, and post service results.

If that sounds like what you would do with a notebook computer, you're right. But the traditional laptop with its hinged lid and keyboard isn't right for many applications. What's also wrong is the eyestrain that comes from backlit screens. That's why books on computers will give way to books on electronic paper. Unless, of course, someone like say... Apple... comes up with that rumored tablet PC that merges the form factor of a book and the reading ease of electronic paper with both WiFi and cellular broadband, high definition color display, two-way touch screen communications, Flash, Microsoft Office compatible applications and so on.

As for the newspapers, the electronic boat sailed without them years ago. What they really need is to become the essential local source for all community information in real time. That means chucking the days-old AP wire stories for more in-house generated in-depth reporting and opinion pieces. Newspapers should be the first to tell you where crimes are occurring, when hail or a tornado is bearing down on your location, where sales of products you are interested in are on sale, and so on.

A daily distributed paper medium is suitable for advocacy or think pieces or in-depth investigative journalism. So is electronic ink. Things that change in real-time, such as national news, game scores or stock reports can be pulled from sources that are already collecting this data and dropped into the electronic editions. Few people want to wait for delivery of the morning paper to get that information anymore. If newspapers want to be relevant in the day of Google News, Yahoo Finance and Craigslist, they've got to embrace a Web 2.0 model of interactivity and instant updates. Perhaps the old timey idea of the "town crier" is an idea who's time has come again.

There is a crying need for a local-centric centralized information purveyor. Radio and TV stations aren't stepping up to this in any meaningful way. Various small time community bulletin boards have come and gone on the Internet. Newspapers could make this their new mission, while still distributing a downsized print edition for commuters, impulse buyers, and those who aren't quite ready to go all-electronic. The trick will be to provide a wealth of interactive information that can't be had elsewhere and considered valuable enough to pay for.

If not, the world will move on with blogs, RSS feeds, web portals, email alerts, downloadable books, and hundreds of satellite and cable TV stations filling the gap. The downtown livery stable and the telegraph office have disappeared and we've not gone wanting. We'll live without newspapers. But it really would be a shame.

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