SHIFT: How the Kindle 2's children will save newspapers (and magazines)

DVICE writers take a closer look at the latest tech trends in our weekly column, Shift.

Kindle the Second has been unveiled. OK, I know you're probably sick of hearing about it, so I'll come straight to the point: I'm not going to get one. Don't get me wrong — I want one — I think it's a really cool device and has some amazing features. But, as my colleague Stewart Wolpin laid out for me with mathematical certainty some time ago, I don't read enough books to make it a worthwhile purchase. Blogs, newspapers and magazines make up the bulk of my reading material.

Hey, wait a second — the Kindle does those, too, doesn't it? Yeah, but I'm still not getting one. So what's holding me back? An e-reader's big advantage over print, as I've noted before, is that its content is updatable, which makes it a natural for periodicals. But to get me to cancel my subscriptions and go with a portable reader would take something better than the Kindle.

That said, I'm confident that devices based on the same technology will eventually win over people like me — and in the process save newpapers and magazines. How? Read on.

Paying for What's Free

The most important thing that Amazon's done is getting people to pay for content they can get for free on other devices. Amazon is silent on how many people have subscribed to newspapers, magazines and blogs on the Kindle, but they're not exactly neglecting the area. There are 1,200 blog feeds available for download, and although their selection of periodicals could be better, they do have the major international publications. Someone must be subscribing.

The amazing thing is people can get blogs, newspapers and most magazines for free on the Internet. But since the payments are relatively low — the rates range from $0.99 to $13.99 a month — it's not a huge leap. Turns out you don't like Narrative after all? No big deal, they've only got you for a month.

Kindle's Limits

If anything's holding back the Kindle 2 from becoming an instant buy for any news or magazine junkie, it's engineering. While it has a lot going for it, the Kindle has drawbacks that make it a less-than-ideal choice for periodicals. Lack of color is obvious, but also the form factor isn't great. As any newspaper subscriber will tell you, there's nothing like unfolding a big broadsheet like The Wall Street Journal and simply browsing with your eyes, ads and all.

Recent technology demos have shown what fans of print media should crave: full-color, flexible e-paper. Using color E Ink or something similar, it's possible to make a device that doesn't just give you a newspaper's content — it can give you the feel of it (or something close) as well. Esquire recently showed that putting it in something that's damn close to paper isn't as hard as you might think.

The Perfect Periodical E-Reader

Imagine a device the size of a magazine that opens just like one. But it only has four pages: the front and back cover and the two pages inside. All four pages are screens that use color E Ink, and the layout looks just like a regular magazine or newspaper, including the ads. You can swipe and scroll and zoom and turn pages all with your fingers, similar to the iPhone. Since you wouldn't actually be reading the outside pages, they could be sold as advertising space — sold by the periodical. Since E Ink consumes no power (except when changing images), the ads won't drain your battery.

Subscribing to a newspaper or magazine would be a couple of button touches away, and password protection similar to what the iPhone App Store does now would make it secure enough for most people. If technology continues to progress, there's no reason a magazine couldn't offer animation or even video on E Ink screens, though that's farther away than color. Applications like Adobe AIR can help.

Above all, though, the device needs to be durable. We're all used to hurriedly stuffing a magazine or newspaper in our pocket or bag when we finally get to our subway stop — an electronic device that you don't throw away would have to endure this on a daily basis and still last years.

When?

Looking at today's Kindle, such a technological marvel is probably years away. Ultimately, though, something like it has to arrive, or newspapers and magazines will continue to decline. At the end of the day, they have to offer a reading experience comparable to what people already get with paper — an experience they're willing to pay for — and they need to make those payments as easy (and as small) as possible. But with innovative devices like the one I envision, we might have the best of both worlds: a paperless society that still has the daily paper.