The Digital Magazine Vs. the Digital Magazine

I remember working on a digital handheld project back in 2005 or so, and during our research phase, we came across the e-Ink technology in its early stages of development. The display material wasn’t (and still isn’t) of the caliber required to be a substitute for an LCD display, but at the time, the price warranted further investigation.

As we spoke to the sales folks for e-Ink, they promised a litany of mouth-watering bullet points. Things like: ”you’ll be seeing this technology in the breakfast aisle on every cereal box,” and “Microsoft has ordered a gross of these things for the cover of all the new XBox 360 titles,” and “this stuff is so cheap, you could theoretically wallpaper your house with it.”

Of course, the material was supposed to be available for order and use about three months after I first started investigating it as a display alternative. Three years later, we finally see it in mass use on what is typically thought of as a throw-a-way item, an Old Media magazine.

The empire has struck back. Esquire’s October issue has hit newsstands in most places (though not in my town just yet), and on the cover is a flexible dynamic display used for showing an attention grabbing cover as well as an animated advertisement on the inside. Flickr user PT decided to deconstruct it, see what it was made of, and document the process:
I picked up the Esquire E-ink’ed cover today and took a bunch of high res photos, For the makers out there… It has: a programming header, 5-pin ISP, a Microchip PIC 12f629 which is flash programmable, 8 pin, 6 lithium coin cell CR2016s, 3 volts each. 2 e-ink screens with flex connections - looks like it was made to be reprogrammed and different screens. The top screen 11 segments, the bottom has 3. It was design 06/04/2008. The PCB was made by Forewin, half thickness, 2 layer board (FR4). I think someone out there will likely reflash the PIC and make the segments go on / off at different time and perhaps put other displays on it, there’s a little bit of hacking to be had but not that much really.

These are exciting times, but what do they mean for the future of print? The technology is pretty cheap - inexpensive enough so that they’re able to defray the cost by increasing the cover price by only $2.00 for the animated cover. According to the BusinessWeek writeup, “Granger wouldn’t disclose the extra cost of printing the electronic display or its gain from Ford’s ad buy.” It’s lucrative enough that it’s a stunt that’s going to be repeated again within the next nine months.

Does this mean that we’ll have another developing form of digital magazine on our hands? It is purely coincidental that a good deal of top tier blogs (like our very own) have been switching to what’s being called by some the magazine and the “half-magazine” format. In the face of a format shift like this, a theme modification may seem somewhat inconsequential, but as the e-Ink technology sees wider distribution beyond a couple issues a year and an expensive, subscription based e-book reader, I have to wonder if this isn’t a taste of things to come.

This is a year in which newsprint looks far more likely to collapse than we’ve ever seen before. Meanwhile, top-tier blogs continue to prosper and find their niche as virtual magazines. Traditional media magazines seem to see the writing on the wall and are looking to meet New Media halfway. Embedding one dynamic display panel on the cover of your magazine is hardly what you’d call Minority Report technology, but it’s a step in that direction. 

It’s good to see some of this long awaited technology come to fruition. The next step is obviously hooking the Internet wirelessly to these types of displays, something that Amazon’s doing of course (although not as flexibly as Esquire).

Who will be the one to do that? Quite possibly, PlasticLogic. They were one of the startups to debut their product at DEMOfall on Monday. I took a quick peek at what they were doing the other day on one of my podcasts, and was particularly impressed with what they debuted today. Pictured above, it’s similar to current ebook readers in that it’s capable of reading and displaying a variety of widely used formats such as PDF and the different office document formats.

Unlike other readers, all the circuits are embedded in the highly flexible plastic case itself and able to be updated via wireless technology. According to PlasticLogic, it’s also due out early next year.

I’ve heard those sorts of promises before, but then again last time I heard anything along those lines, Esquire Magazine wasn’t using similar technology on their current issue, and the technology wasn’t being demonstrated in front of hundreds of VCs, technologists, and tech pundits in San Diego.

So while print media tanks in a way that seems to foretell the doom of all Old Media organizations, we may be seeing the technology rolling out right now that media organizations of the Old and New variety might both be using as the path to their salvation.

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PlasticLogic and the Role of e-Ink for New Media
Up Close and Personal With the Esquire e-Ink Cover (Video)

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