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Learning to Love New eReading Platforms - 8/10/2010 -

Digital reading devices limit a publication's design, atomize its content, and separate readers from publishers. You want them anyway, Time Inc.'s Peter Meirs told Association Media & Publishing members at a recent Lunch & Learn—here's why.

By Ryan DuBosar

Digital reading devices limit a publication's design, atomize its content, and separate readers from publishers. You want them anyway. Tens of millions of new users expected in the next few years alone makes them must-have media.

To delve into the pros and cons, Association Media & Publishing hosted a seminar on smartphones, tablets, and other mobile platforms led by Peter Meirs, vice president of production technologies for Time Inc., who has overseen digital publications and digital workflow conversions across numerous platforms for the publishing giant. The Lunch & Learn was hosted at the Commercial Finance Association in New York City and sponsored by Magellan Media.

To begin, association publishers fretting about the digital explonsion of platforms need to decide which one to serve first. It's still print, Meirs says. The paper version of a magazine is still the main driver of content, even if the editorial planning process demands new ways of thinking about what else will accompany the content as it moves across mobile platforms.

Next, publishers should be present on three different platforms, each one with different standards, and each platform with different devices in the class. Not to worry, Meirs says, as a single publishing standard allows editors to focus on content creation. That standard, known as XML, takes a single content stream and re-publishes it across the dizzying variety of mobile platforms: laptops and notebook computers, e-readers and tablets, and smartphones.

Meirs broke down the platforms for attendees. Laptops/netbooks are light, but they're still heavy to carry around like a book or a magazine. They have to be booted up and powered down when finished. "Transportable doesn't mean it's really mobile," Meirs points out.

The market for tablets such as the iPad is growing, and they are more mobile yet, at least to begin. "They're good when you need them, but when you're done, they're hard to put away," he says.

And iPads have a lot of unattractive features, Meirs says. There's no multitasking of applications, no ability to run Flash, no camera, no USB port, no keyboard, and no printing capability.(Editor's note: An Apple Store manager responds that the iPad has its own on-screen keyboard, a physical keyboard that docks the iPad, and a wireless keyboard, and there are a number of apps that can be downloaded to allow the iPad to print.) Meirs compares iPads to treadmills. Users will buy it but quickly lose interest because it doesn't fit their lifestyle.

E-book readers are more tailored to a single purpose, are lighter, and are easy to handle. Even a tablet gets heavy to hold like a paperback. The units, Kindle (Amazon), Nook (Barnes & Noble), and Reader (Sony) had sold about 3 million units by 2009 and could reach 13 million by 2013.

They offer an excellent book-reading experience, and textbooks could grow the audience significantly. The Kindle's high-speed network with no ongoing costs after purchase offers consumers an excellent deal. That's enough to bring other platforms such as Skiff (Hearst) into the market in the near future.

But these systems cleave the publisher from the reader, putting the digital library of Amazon or Barnes & Noble in the way. Publishers rely on direct contact to turn magazine readers into book buyers, association members, or product purchasers, and the digital intermediary blocks that, Meirs points out.

Meirs believes smartphones could be the best option for mobile content for many reasons. They have high utility. They are a cell phone and a personal digital assistant, and they can run multiple applications at once, while offering nice extras like cameras, calendars, and e-mail. And when the user is done with it, it goes back into a pocket quickly, where it's invisible again. "It's the mobile device right now that meets user needs," he says.

Smartphones can be e-book readers, too, and Kindle and Barnes & Noble apps establish them as a viable book reading platform on phones.
The drawback is what Meirs calls the 3-inch experience, referring to their small screen size. Design options are limited in that space, and that means the phones don't carry the recognizable look of the print publication. Instead, all content winds up looking like an app. It's not possible to convey the rich design of a magazine on a screen that's less than 20 percent the size of an iPad.

Also, smartphones break down magazine content. A magazine is a cohesive narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, Meirs says. Those features that editors strive to mesh together issue after issue get broken down into smaller chunks, or what he calls the "content atomization" of a magazine.

In the end, print still drives the car, but the peripherals are multiplying. People are buying multiple devices, but they generally start with smart phones because of their utility and convenience. There are 50 million iPhones sold already,and the category could see 38 percent growth once the Android operating system is released.

When you can only bring one item on vacation, you bring the smart phone. "This is an opportunity for associations," Meirs says. "This is where people are going, not to buy books, but to consume content."

Ryan DuBosar (Twitter: @acpinternist) is senior editor for ACP Internist, American College of Physicians. Association Media & Publishing thanks him for doing an excellent job of covering the New York Lunch & Learn for those members who were unable to attend.


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