READY OR NOT | Digital paper is right around the corner -- and I don't think newspapers are ready for it.
Phillips Electronics announced at the end of January that it is ready to begin mass-producing a flexible display panel on to which users can download text and images, then roll it up and take with them -- much like tucking a newspaper under your arm. The February edition of the journal Nature Materials features a big cover story on the arrival of the long-awaited technology.
The first models have a display area of about five inches and can roll up into a case the size of a pen. It can be updated through connections to your computer or cell phone -- fetching you the latest Web pages, e-mail, books or news. Expect to see them on the market by 2005, say folks at Phillips who expect to make a million a year by then. "It's no longer a research project," one spokesman told Reuters.
Sure the first versions will be small, expensive, low-quality, short of memory and quick to run out of juice, but we'll be seeing a product that can hold a newspaper -- or rival it, with features like video -- within a couple years.
Our portability is the one key feature that no other technology has been able to match in all these years. It has kept us viable even while other mediums spread news and advertising faster, on more levels. Digital paper will change that, I think.
I wouldn't mind seeing the industry work toward something like the digital paper portrayed in the movie Minority Report. One scene featured a digital version of USA Today that looked more like a newspaper than a Web site, but changed as news developed. Something that wouldn't be hard to do today in a Wi-Fi hot zone. Add GPS to the mix and you could have ads appear in your paper for stores and restaurants within walking distance -- or local news for your neighborhood or about the businesses or institutions (or people!) you drive or walk by.
The possibilities are endless, really. But, I don't see any signs that we're thinking about this potentially fundamental change at all. Newspaper Web sites, for the most part, are still secondary and still run on a morning/lunch/afternoon news-cycle. Our newsrooms (and people) are not organized/prepared to publish constantly. Are we going to give away the technology or wait for people to buy their own digital papers? Do we know how sell location-specific advertising/base rates on radius? How are we going to design/present the news on these things? And, perhaps most importantly, how are we going to make money? Sure we'll save a mint on newsprint, but people still equate "digital" with "free."
That's a lot to think about. And since we didn't exactly bolt out of the gates with this Internet thing, I think it's time to get crackin'.