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Special-purpose device in a general-purpose world


Special devices such as Hearst's newspaper e-reader are not long for the world


'Net Insider By Scott Bradner , Network World , 03/03/2009


Fortune Magazine broke the story in late February that newspaper giant (though getting smaller) Hearst Corp., is developing a wireless newspaper e-reader. This project seems like almost exactly the wrong thing to do.


Nothing specific has yet surfaced about the Hearst reader. Fortune describes it as being the size of a "standard sheet of paper" (8 ½ x 11 inches?) and it might use displays developed by E Ink, which Hearst invested in about a decade ago. This screen would be a lot bigger than the 6-inch diagonal screen on the Amazon Kindle book reader. As Fortune points out, more space for ads.


At the same time, a number of Web news sites reported that Hearst is thinking of moving a lot of its content to fee-based Web sites. So, if I understand this correctly, Hearst is assuming that you will spend your money to buy a special reader to enable you to spend more money to read its content - sounds like a plan.


Hearst seems to be learning from Amazon but I do not see how anyone can yet learn much from the Kindle. Amazon has been selling a lot of Kindles but that does not mean that all that many people want to keep accumulating special purpose devices.


The usefulness and use of the Internet has grown primarily because a single device - the PC - and a single piece of software - the browser - enabled access to a vast variety of applications and content. You do not need to get a special computer to find out that it will snow tomorrow or to watch politicians say dumb things on YouTube.


I would like a device about the size and shape of the rumored Hearst device but I want a general purpose computer, not a one-trick pony (see Apple's next mold breaker?). I expect that Kindle sales would drop precipitously if Apple, or someone else, were to bring out a device of the sort I describe in that column, particularly if it has a full color E Ink type screen -- as would the sales of any purpose-built device from Hearst.


I do expect that both Amazon and Hearst will sell some of their devices to people who like new toys and to those who think that they only want to do one thing. For example, read a book on the beach or a plane. But woe be to them if they then wanted to read a newspaper.


Amazon and Hearst could try to force people to buy their devices by refusing to permit their content to be displayed on other devices. That would only make sense if there were no other sources for the content and the public is clamoring for the content, or, like the iPod, the device is so much better than anyone else's attempt you can drive the market. Note that the iPod Touch of today is not the single purpose device that the original iPod was. So even Apple sees a limited future in single-purpose devices.


Clearly there is very little news that is confined to the Hearst newspapers, so content exclusivity does not seem to be much of a forcing factor for the Hearst e-reader.


It is sad to watch an industry such as the newspaper business try to avoid dealing with such fundamental changes in their world by clinging to the way they did business in the pre-Internet world. It just prolongs the agony for all involved.


Disclaimer: Harvard is still learning about the Internet after almost 40 years of connectivity but it is learning and does not, as far as I know, have an opinion on those that do not. So the above is my own view.


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