Note: I am much better at starting things than finishing them and have this bad habit with starting postings that never get posted. This one has been sitting in my drafts folder for several months now and long overdue to finally get to you so here it is. The iPad announcement has since come and gone and will help fuel some of what I'm looking for but as you'll read I'm still optimistic and holding out for a future covered in "digital goo". - Wayne
Seems I’m on a bit of a print sprint of late (see previous List with a Twist posting for example), though I’m surely spending more time in front of a screen than ever. Today’s update is about the future of magazines and an update on my long standing quest and wait for the arrival of true digital paper or digital “goo”.
I LOVE Magazines!
I read a lot of magazines—more than one a day—on a very wide range of topics. And I’m one of those silly people who reads every page of the magazine, including all the ads. So as digitally inclined and geeky as I may be, let’s get this out of the way up front: I LOVE magazines.
Things I love (and want to retain) about magazines:
- Focused topical areas
- Relative, informative, and clever (sometimes) advertisements
- Great glossy color photos, graphics
- Serendipitous discovery of cool new ideas, products, etc.
- Reading anywhere I’m sitting, having it in my hand/lap rather than on my desk
- Just the right size/heft for handheld/lap reading
- Easy on the eyes for extended reading
- Cleared for take off and landing times! (reading anywhere such as planes)
- No cords or batteries
However, as with any love or relationship, here are a few things I don’t like so much and would like to see improved:
- Physical delivery format limits me to mail subscriptions, magazine stands, etc.
- Weight. On my last flight 28 lbs/12.7kg of my bags were magazines!
- Wastefulness. Apparently 15% sale of magazines in bookstands is considered high!
- Static images only
- Read only
- Requires good external lighting
- No easy search/find capabilities, especially across issues
- No connections to related items of interest
- No cut, copy, paste, share, keep (I used to have boxes full of torn-out magazine pages)
- No disctionary or lookup
- No easy way to archive them
Can I do some of this reading and resolve some of these problems on my laptop, tabletPC, smartphone, eReader? Yes, but not well, and with no where near the same reading experience of real magazines.
I Love Books Too
I don’t equate magazines at all with books, though books too are another love. Many of the items on my like/don’t-like list apply to books as well, but my Kindle has resolved most of my don’t-like list items and it has increased my book reading quantity and quality. I’ve still got some key items on my wish list for the next eBooks version such as a touch screen interface, handwritten notes, etc., but the ease of getting new books no matter where I am, access to so many (including almost all of the classics for free), linked note-taking and having my entire library with me all the time (including manuals for all my boat equipment) has been one of the best experiences in the past few years.
And for me, Kindle passes the most important test of all for book reading—I can lose myself in the story. By this I mean I am unaware that I’m reading, paper or otherwise and I'm in the story or in my thoughts as I read! Much of this is due to the very paper-like screen technology (E Ink in the case of Kindle and many other eReaders) as well as its baby bear (not too big, not too small) size and weight.
So far, eReaders and tablets don’t work too well with magazines…at least not for me. I’ve tried quite a few and continue to try more of them—both software and hardware based. But with magazines, I’m looking for a different experience: color is critical, so is size of the images (larger), and yet not larger in weight and size in my hand/lap. However, I’m seeing some help on the horizon for my magazine reading and in the short term (next year), I think some of the new digital formats could provide some near-term solutions.
Check out the video below for something we’ll almost assuredly see in the next few months, and which has some promise. If you’re like me, you’ll need to look beyond the content of this example (Sports Illustrated), but I do like much of what I see in the demo (thanks to Dan Pink for the tip). Peter Kafka also has a posting on this: “Game On: Time Inc. Shows Off a Tabletized Sports Illustrated”
I am especially intrigued by the interface and the nice mix of old and new with such things as retaining all the familiarity of the old, a print- and paper-based magazine, blended with new capabilities, such as richer content with video and audio, search, rearrangement, sharing, and linking. This video is well worth 3 minutes of your time. Have a look and see what you come away with?
Note that pretty much everything you see in this demo, and what I’m most intrigued by are the changes in content and interface features. However just as important as these will be the issues of the hardware and the physical attributes of what comes next.
Here is another example of a different set of perspectives on what the future of eMagazines might look like. It’s worth watching to see what these researchers and developers assessed to be some of the essential elements of the magazine reading experience which we want to retain and what we want to avoid.
Tablets to the Rescue?
I’ve been a tabletPC champion and user for over 10 years (bought one of the first Apple Newtons too!) and still believe that tabletPC-based features, especially screen-based features such as multi-touch, “flippable”, handwriting recognition and input, and so on will become standard features on all laptops and all screens for that matter. At this point in time, tabletPCs are the best and almost only choice for any digital magazine reading I do, but the benefits I get from magazines are not there. Much of the problem is due to the physical limitations of the device, too thick, heavy, and clunky. And there is still no help with subscriptions, integrated note taking, integration of content across devices, common formats, ease of access, and very limited content beyond what is in the print versions.
It is no coincidence then that there is so much rumor and hype surrounding things like the upcoming “iPad” and rumblings from other hardware sources. It may also bode well that some of those in the publishing world are taking a more future-oriented view of these developments, such as is demonstrated by Time Inc. in the video above and by this more recent announcement of Wired's upcoming version for the iPad. Adobe is also rumored to be developing a publishing tool and magazine reader for tablet devices. And here is a recent list of "5 Things That Will Make E-Readers Better in 2010". At the very least, 2010 promises to be a significant year for more options that may help deliver some of my wish list items for magazine-type reading.
Digital Goo: The Only Book or Magazine I Ever Need?
As excited and optimistic as I am that we will see all of the above, and more over the coming year, I’m holding out for a completely different development—digital goo. This is what I’ve been asking for and evangelizing about for more than 20 years. Digital goo will be the advent of “real” digital paper, virtual paper or whatever we come to call it, and more importantly, will be a major shift in the way we think of, access, create, and consume content.
Here is an excerpt from an old paper that will give you an idea of what I have in mind for “digital goo”. I wrote this back in the 1990’s, so you’ll have to pardon the black and white and television orientation, but I think you’ll get the idea. It is as simple as it is profound, and yes, I’m still waiting.
… imagine a substance at the molecular level where each molecule is a tiny sphere where one half of its surface is black and the other half white. Each black and white sphere can easily be controlled by electrical input so that either the white or the black side is facing up. Now, mix this substance into paint or wood pulp or plastic and you suddenly have the ability to make ANY surface digital and capable of displaying ANY image you’d like with almost infinite resolution.
You can see the possibilities. Imagine binding a few pages of digital paper together to create truly digital books! Oh, and note that the images on this digital paper can move, so suddenly that you can be watching “TV (the content) in a book.” Just throw in some other colors with those black and white molecular spheres and we’ve got color screens literally EVERYWHERE! An equally frightening and exciting vision for most of us, I suspect. Based on what I’ve been privileged to see in research labs for the past few years, the introduction of this technology into the marketplace can’t be far off.
Therefore, I’m hoping that the next iteration of eBooks will consist of a few pages of real digital paper bound into the only book/magazine/paper I’ll ever need. These pages will be made by adding some “digital goo” to the regular production of paper, or paint, producing sheets of relatively ordinary looking and feeling paper which are now essentially “just” digital surfaces capable of displaying any content at near infinite resolution including video and animations. This same digital paper could also accept inputs such as touch and handwriting.
For me at least, I still want multiple pages, and I think we may see a renaissance of books as a format and form factor in this regard. Maybe it is just a function of my rather severe ADD affliction, which results in my flipping back and forth through multiple pages of a magazine that I’m reading. I bring most of my laptops to their knees because at any one time, I usually have more than 30 tabs running in my browser, and more than 10 other apps running at the same time. But I think we all have versions of this problem, and having multiple pages, both for just larger display areas (think centerfolds and flip outs) as well as speed of access, means that this will become a very common and highly desirable feature.
Research is going on to support much of this and I’m sure that like most things, it will be here sooner than we expect and also take longer than we expect for us to take advantage of.
Peter Kafka in another related posting on Condé Nast’s Offering for Apple’s Mystery Tablet: Wired Magazine finished with the following paragraph that seems just so apropos for the world of exponential change we are living in and a fitting end to this post:
“But all of this assumes that consumers, who’ve shown no inclination to pay for this stuff on the Web, will be willing to pay for it once it appears on devices no one owns yet. We’ll find out soon enough.”