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Portable E-Newspapers Seen on Horizon

The announcement by Seiko Epson on Monday of a new electronic “paper” display with the highest resolution seen in the technology to date appears to be another sign that the newspaper of the future is close at hand.

The 7.1-inch prototype revealed by Epson and which incorporates technology developed by E Ink, of Cambridge, Mass., has a resolution of 1536-by-2048 pixels.

As is typical with e-paper products, the screen is almost as thin as its pulp-based counterpart, and it contains flexible memory chips that can be built into the display’s plastic substrate, which enable it to bend like paper.

Experiments in Works

Will e-paper technologies like Epson’s be the backbone of the future newspaper? That remains to be seen, although some news outfits are expected to dip their toes in the technology this year.

Hearst, Pearson and De Tijd, a Belgian financial paper, have all disclosed their intentions to launch this year large-scale trials of portable devices for receiving news.

In addition, Microsoft has been pitching to The New York Times concepts about what a newspaper might look like in the forthcoming Windows Vista operating system, according to Ross Rubin, director for industry analysis for The NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y.

“If you combined that with an Origami device, that might be another newspaper alternative,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Origami is Microsoft’s code name for a new class of portable computing device — the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) — announced earlier this year and includes the Samsung Q1 and Avaretec Ahi.

Flex Hang-Up

While there are benefits to flexible screens — they’re durable, cheaper to manufacture and lightweight — the paper metaphor can be carried too far, argued Roger Fidler, director of technology initiatives for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo.

“People who talk about how cool it would be to have a flexible display are getting hung up on the literal interpretation of translating from traditional paper into the digital world,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“But if you’re using a pen-based technology for navigating on that screen, flexible is not really that desirable,” he continued. “Even with a magazine, people want to have it flat on a table or have it fairly firm as they’re reading it.”

A New Iliad

Fidler has been working on a mobile news reader called the Iliad. It’s based on the iRex platform developed by Philips Electronics and will be among one of the first e-ink devices commercially available to the public.

He has been testing a digital publishing platform developed at the University of Missouri called eMprint on the Iliad. “It works well on that device,” Fidler said. “It’s a smaller device than I would like — the size of a large paperback book — and it’s in black and white.

“I’d say that we’re still a year or so away from having products that people will become aware of in the marketplace,” he added.

Newspapers Targeted

He explained the target market for the iRex includes newspaper publishers.

“Newspaper publishers could offer them at a discounted price in return for a one- or two-year subscription,” he said. “It would keep prices affordable to people, somewhere around [US]$400.”

The device would be capable of reading any digital book, newspaper or magazine, personal documents and include some note-taking capacity, he added.

Gadget Fatigue

Making the gadgets more than a single-purpose device will be important for their early acceptance, according to Steve Outing, Interactive Media Columnist at Editor and Publisher, a newspaper industry magazine.

“It’s a huge issue,” he told TechNewsWorld. “If you’re going on a business trip and you’re taking a laptop, you don’t want to lug another device around.

“Some sort of device that does multiple duties is going to be accepted more,” he added. “One of the impediments to this thing working is the resistance of people to carrying around too many gadgets.”

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