The iPhone and Kindle have made the long-mythical portable electronic newspaper device a reality for a significant number of mainstream consumers.
Many news organisations have created applications to ease access to their content on the iPhone — Variety’s app launch was an interesting addition this week.
Kindle is also becoming a news platform. PaidContent:UK this week reported that the Daily Mail is keen to join the 31 newspapers and magazines available on the Kindle — for subscribers.
And there’s the rub: although both devices are primarily designed to sell premium access to various other media, they represent two contrasting visions for the future of mobile news.
Jeff Jarvis neatly summarises it in a post about his experiences with the Amazon Kindle:
The iPhone and Kindle are a study in contrasts. The biggest is, of course, the business model: One may buy books on either, but current content on the iPhone will, in most cases, be ad-supported; on the Kindle, it is paid for by the reader.
The same thing is true for mobile news.
The Kindle, as newspaper publishers are currently using it, represents a vision of mobile e-readers founded on subscription-based access to publisher-determined bundles of content. Paying subscribers receive packages of content, the unbundling effect digital media has had on newspapers and magazines is completely undone.
The way it is currently being used, Kindle represents moving print-style newspaper portability to electronic delivery.
It’s digital media as printies wish it to be. It’s digital media mimicking the form and business model of print media — something that may work temporarily, but is probably just a transitional approach.
The iPhone, by contrast, represents a very different vision: making web-based news mobile. Like Amazon, Apple controls access to its platform for certain media through iTunes and the App Store.
Nevertheless, the iPhone represents openness and an application-neutral platform for accessing the Internet.
This is a consequence of the presence of one particular iPhone app: Safari. The web browser on the iPhone means that — contrary to those who fantisise about an “iTunes for news” — the iPhone represents a news distribution model that is free-to-air and ad-supported — an extension of the existing web to portable devices, rather than a new electronic version of the print product.
The Kindle 2 also has a basic web browser, but it remains is primarily designed as a platform for selling premium off-browser media.
Jack Shafer of Slate noted described it this way:
By thinking outside the browser, Apple answers to nobody but itself when it wants to add features, such as movies and TV show sales and rentals—or when subtracting them. If the browser window is the commons, the iTunes application is Apple’s castle, where you’re expected to do as you’re told.
Another outside-the-browser experiment, nowhere near as successful as the iTunes app, is the New York Times’ Times Reader, which delivers a very readable version of the paper. I found the Times Reader good enough to pay for when I reviewed it in September 2006, and I have great hopes for the forthcoming version, built on Adobe’s AIR 1.5 platform. A third example of “outside” product and software design for content is Amazon’s Kindle, which thinks both outside the browser and outside the personal computer.
Unlike music and video, news is very much available on the iPhone commons, via the browser. The fungiblity of news persists on the iPhone.
The castle approach may work for books on Kindle and for movies on the iPhone because these media forms cannot be unbundled and are not perishable. But the re-bundling effect of Kindle-style e-newspaper subscriptions — selling a publisher-determined package of news stories as if they were a book — is artificial. Any device capable of connecting to the web should be capable of accessing the web could operate a standard, content-neutral browser, and this is what users will come to expect.
If I can only read books or newspapers on my mobile device, it is less valuable to me than one that can access the wider internet, where my e-mail lives, my friends hang out and new web-based applications are invented every day.
It’s even more valuable if it is a phone, camera and a music player — ensuring that potential consumers (and producers!) of journalism will carry it with them constantly. Consumers will tire of carrying separate devices for different types of media and applications.
For these reasons, I suspect that after a short period of the castle and commons models of mobile news competing and coexisting, the iPhone-like browser-based devices will win out over the Kindle-like single-application devices, effectively ruling out the quasi “iTunes for news” model being attempted by some on Kindle and similar e-readers.
Newspaper and magazine publisher Hearst is reportedly planning to launch a e-reader device of its own. The company has been investing in this technology for some time.
According to Fortune, the Hearst device will have a larger screen which “better approximates the reading experience of print periodicals, as well as giving advertisers the space and attention they require.”
Unlike Apple and Amazon, Hearst’s key media product is news, so will be particularly interesting to see whether they intend to pursue the Kindle model or the iPhone model of mobile news.