$100 million for e-paper firm – maybe you should start thinking about the future

Red Herring reports a British e-paper company locked up $100 million in venture capital.

“The company plans to build the plant, with an initial capacity of a million displays a year, in the eastern Germany city of Dresden and start production in 2008. The company said demand for electronic readers is expected to climb to 41.6 million units in 2010.”

E-paper is real, and its coming. The best thing for newspapers to do is to keep moving their online presences forward.

There are three key elements to this technology you’re going to want to start developing now, if you haven’t already:

  1. RSS feeds. I’m embarrassed that the paper I work at doesn’t have news feeds yet, and I’ve been there almost three months now. At the Spartan Daily, implementing feeds was my point of entry for working on the site. I’ll work on that… RSS is going to be your delivery system.
  2. Mobile usability. Have you tried to load your paper’s site on a mobile phone browser lately? How much navigation and advertising do your readers need to scroll through before they get to a clean list of headlines? What will Web design for a flexible semiconducting-polymer screen look like?
  3. Search. Think Google News more than Google here. You’re going to want readers to see your headlines in their topic-based RSS feeds, and the only way to do that — other than by frequently updating high-quality content that draws lots of inbound links — is to develop and design in a way that plays nice with search engines. Brush up on some basic SEO, like matching title tags to h1 tags, and start making the little fixes like this on your news site now.

Why should you bother with all this now? Because the future doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a slow process. You’re not going to get surprised by a new technology — your old technology is just going to slowly become obsolete.

Note to newspaper companies: Keep your print layout off my screen

Hey guys, let’s make a deal: You stop trying to paste an old media model (print layout) on a new medium (e-paper, UMPC, tabletPC), and I’ll keep reading the stories I want to read, when I want to read them, either via RSS feeds from your paper, or when a blog I trust links to you.

How hard is that to understand?

Don’t get me wrong – I love print layout, and I love paper, but a mobile device is not a piece of paper, and I don’t want it to be.

I spotted this in the press-release-osphere today: NewspaperDirect (the folks behind PressDisplay.com) have cut a deal with Microsoft to zap your favorite newspapers over to your UltraMobilePC (that Origami thing everyone was so excited about awhile back).

Gee, how excited am I to view a broadsheet newspaper layout on a tiny handheld screen? And honestly, even if this ends up being more like the New York Times/Microsoft Vista weird we’ll just make up our own Web standards deal, I’m still not interested.

Stop trying to control my screen, and let me mashup your RSS feeds into my own digital newspaper in peace.

New York Times on e-paper

“One Day Soon, Straphangers May Turn Pages With a Button”

The New York Times reports on the move some newspapers are already making to e-paper:

“This is only one test of new e-paper devices competing to become the iPod of the newspaper business. Other e-paper trials are being undertaken by the paper Les Echos, which is based here, by the newspaper trade group IFRA in Germany and, in the United States, by The New York Times….The International Herald Tribune, which is owned by The New York Times Company, is also in discussions to make subscriptions available later this year for the same e-paper devices used by De Tijd, according to Michael Golden, the International Herald Tribune’s publisher.”

Engadget provides some recent updates on the technology.

Here’s my little futurist riff on the topic from a few weeks ago.

Your paperboy called. He says he’s made of fiberoptic cable. And your micropayment is late.

Here’s why the “but-I-like-inky-fingers” crowd should relax: After most news organizations get their online operations in full swing, but before newsprint goes completely extinct, e-paper will emerge as the daily medium for information. This is old news, but with all the hand-wringing over what to do about a business model for the new newspaper, I think it’s time to take a look at the bright (pun intended) future of the physical newspaper.

Imagine a plastic screen, flexible enough to roll up and put in your back pocket as you shuffle down the stairs to the F train, inexpensive enough that you can replace it when you lose it, and contrasty enough that you can read it in full sunlight without hiding the screen with your arm like a 3rd grade math test.

the real thingLeft, Belgian newspaper De Tijd on an iLiad eReader from iRex Technologies. Picture this, but flexible.

That’s the future physical newspaper, with your preferred paper’s stories downloaded via wireless Internet access to your screen from anywhere where there’s access. (Hint: Everywhere.) Wait, what? Wasn’t I supposed to say that you’ll be able to completely configure this thing to download news from any source you want? Maybe I was, but I’m not sure if that’s what news organizations really want to hear. Here’s a couple permutations…

Let’s start with the closed model, in which different news orgs each have their stable of papers and sources, set up in an iTunes-like environment, where readers can subscribe to their news feeds from within your range of sources. If you’re McClatchy, you’ve got feeds from all your papers available for readers to subscribe to. If you’re Hearst, you’ve got text and video from your local news stations. If you’re CBS, you’ve got national and local news in the form of video and text. Users set up their subscriptions on a home computer, laptop, or other device at first, but once they’re reading their daily e-paper, they should have the ability to unsubscribe from a feed or subscribe to a related feed with a few pushes of a button.

Oh, in this model, readers pay the news organization for the service, with different prices based on how often they want their feeds updated and how many feeds they want to subscribe to.

In the open version of this idea, your iTunes-esque service will be more like a standard RSS feed aggregator, and readers will be able to subscribe to feeds from anywhere they want. In this version, though, newspapers might want to make premium content available only to the readers who use their branded reader or their branded subscription service.

In both versions, micropayments could come into play. Want to read that whole Tom Friedman column? That’ll be 59 cents, please.

Frankly, micropayments sort of nauseate me, but that’s just because I’ve grown accustomed to getting all my information for free, online. With a new format like an e-paper, it will be much easier to get early adopters to pay a little bit for their news. Maybe one way to find a balance here would be to charge only for the stories on the fringes — top news or most popular stories shouldn’t cost you anything, but maybe more detailed feature stories, interviews, and local news from places other than where you live should cost a little something more.

What will an e-paper page look like?

Well, I suppose a PDF-ish newspaper layout should always be an option, but if you’re aggregating a bunch of sources, you’ll probably need some sort of system to decide what gets to the top of the page. (For some reason, I just heard a thousand editors cringe.)

Okay, so the editors get to be involved in the system. I know that some online editions are published automagically at 3 a.m., with placement on the page based on a variable set by the editor. Content management software allows editors to easily set priorities and categories for stories. So let’s use that as part of our placement system, but then add a function of popularity in there as well, and possibly a memetracker-type element that would let readers know if a story was getting a lot of action in the blogosphere, or if it had been picked up by a lot of other publications.

So what we would have laying out the pages is an algorithm based completely on a human process of selection, prioritization, and conversation. Sounds like a newspaper, right?

This futurist stuff is pretty fun. Maybe I should apply for this job

What do you think? Is this for real? Will this just be a high-end luxury toy? Would you rather get email updates on your Blackberry or Google News on your mobile phone? How would you use a mobile newsreader like this? Would you miss turning the pages?