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The E-Reader Revolution Isn't Revolutionizing Magazines

No evidence Kindle competitors to be ‘great leaps forward’ for mag industry.

Harry McCracken By Harry McCracken
11/03/2009 -11:21 AM

From Barnes & Noble's promising nook to dark horses such as the EnTourage eDGe, a bevy of e-reader devices are about to take on's groundbreaking Kindle. They won't transform the way most folks read immediately, but they're a major step in the inevitable, ongoing digitization of nearly everything we're used to reading on on dead trees. As a reader of fat hardcover books I can't fit in my briefcase, I'm a Kindle fan who's excited about seeing Amazon get some competition.

The magazine lover in me, however, is far more skeptical about the next round of e-book gadgets. The Kindle isn't a very satisfactory magazine-reading device, and there's no evidence that any of its imminent competitors will be great leaps forward for our industry. Here's why:

The screens simply aren't up to the job. Every e-reader that's on the market or imminent uses a monochrome E-Ink screen. They do a respectable job of displaying plain-text pages but magazines are anything but plain, and most are anything but monochromatic. Take away high-quality color imagery and you rob them of much of their life.

Good formatting isn't a given. A good magazine artfully weaves together words and pictures in a wonderfully inviting, browsable manner. The Kindle-edition magazines I've subscribed to look like dreary raw text files, in part because the standard Kindle's six-inch screen is too small to replicate a standard magazine page with any fidelity. Some upcoming e-readers, such as the Que, have larger screens, but most will struggle with the same layout issues that the Kindle does.

E-readers lack the Web's benefits. Such as links, comments, and fresh daily content to supplement the stuff that comes out on a weekly or monthly schedule. By contrast, the lifeless presentation of magazines on e-readers reminds me of what I used to see on CompServe, circa 1988.

Don't get me wrong—it's possible that at least some of the upcoming devices will be more pleasing containers for magazines than the Kindle is. And it's dead certain that e-readers will get better at doing periodicals over time, especially with publishers such as Hearst getting into the game.

Overall, though, I'm far more intrigued by the possibility of digital magazines showing up on tablet computers—such as the rumored Apple device—than I am by their appearance on dedicated e-readers. Tablets will have high-resolution color screens which should do a far better job than E-Ink of replicating the vibrancy of print design. Their batteries will conk out in hours rather than days, but that's okay—you don't need days to read a magazine.

Show me a portable reading device that renders magazine content more engaging and not less so, and I'll happily give up paper. For now, though, I pack two types of reading material when I hop on a plane: my Kindle and a stack of my favorite magazines.


Harry McCracken By Harry McCracken -- Harry McCracken spent 20 years in the magazine business before founding Technologizer, a site about personal technology, in 2008.

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