A better year for BlackBerry users?

BlackBerry Tour

I like to tell friends with iPhones that my BlackBerry can do everything their phones can do — just worse. I lusted for an iPhone last summer, when I had finally decided to take the plunge on a smartphone. But I would have had to switch carriers, racking up hundreds of dollars in penalties and lost credits. So I instead became the semi-proud owner of a BlackBerry Tour.

Now we iPhone-enviers are getting some good news. In just the past few days we’ve learned that we’ll be able to run Amazon Kindle software, just like an iPhone, and that sometime later this year we’ll be getting a new Web browser. That’s critical, because the current browser is miserable. I use Opera Mini whenever I can, but it’s not the default, and the default can’t be changed. So if a click on a link in e-mail or ÜberTwitter, it automatically calls up the BlackBerry browser, with invariably poor results.

To be sure, a BlackBerry is a pretty good tool for instant on-the-ground journalism. I’ve covered several news events using the (mediocre) built-in camera to post to Twitter. Although I haven’t tried it, I should be able to post instant video as well — even a livestream via Qik. But BlackBerry’s roots are as a business tool — not as a journalist’s best friend. (Here is my TwitPic photostream.)

Certainly there are some things to like about the BlackBerry. By every measure I’ve seen, Verizon’s connectivity is more reliable than AT&T’s. Since I already had Verizon, the BlackBerry was definitely the nicest smartphone I could get. E-mail is very slick with BlackBerry, and typing on the physical keyboard is pretty easy — though I’d trade it for a bigger screen and a good virtual keyboard, like the iPhone has. (I decided against a BlackBerry Storm because I didn’t like the virtual keyboard.)

And now it looks like RIM, which manufactures the BlackBerry, is determined to close at least some of the iPhone gap.

GlobeReader makes a quiet debut

With little fanfare, the Boston Globe has unveiled a “preview” edition of GlobeReader, an attempt to produce an online newspaper that offers a better experience than the Web version. GlobeReader is slick and highly readable. Save for subtle differences in the fonts that are used, it looks exactly like Times Reader 2.0, which the New York Times unveiled last month. Both are built on the Adobe Air platform, which allows developers to build applications outside the context of the Web.

Unlike Times Reader, which you can subscribe to as a standalone product for $14.95 a month, GlobeReader is free but available only to print subscribers. You do not, however, have to be a seven-day subscriber — a Thursday-through-Sunday or Sunday-only subscription is sufficient.

That’s probably a smart move. Knowledgeable people have told me that more than half of the Globe’s advertising revenue comes from the Sunday paper. Still, Globe spokesman Bob Powers says that could change.

As for what we can expect once GlobeReader has moved beyond the “preview” stage, Powers writes:

We’ve chosen the term preview edition to reflect that GlobeReader is a brand new product for us, and to a large degree the industry, which we will continually improve based upon reader feedback. We want to make sure the customers help shape future editions. We are also opening GlobeReader Preview Edition only to subscribers because we do want to hear from our most loyal readers.

We also expect to add features such as crosswords, ‘news in video’, a ‘latest news’ update, and ’email to a friend’ in the upcoming weeks/months, as they become available.

[F]or formatting reasons we are not including features such as comics, TV grids, weather, and sports box scores. We will look to add these features to a large degree based on reader’s priorities.

A friend who works at the Globe told me recently that GlobeReader is actually a bigger technical challenge than Times Reader because of some peculiarities in the way the Globe is assembled. So I’d give it some settling-down time.

So what’s the business strategy? It seems to me that it’s a hedge against people canceling home delivery of the Globe altogether, especially now that prices have gone up quite a bit. The Globe benefits if people at least hold on to Sunday delivery; it may also benefit from not having to pay the printing and distribution costs of the considerably less lucrative Monday-through-Saturday editions.

It’s an interesting strategy and, combined with other delivery platforms, such as the $9.99-a-month Kindle edition, may help chart a path out of the current mess in which the newspaper business finds itself. Such projects are not going to be nearly enough, but they could help.

Figuring out the Globe’s new price structure

I’m not going to complain about the latest price increases announced by the Boston Globe, since I’m on the record as believing that newspapers can and should charge a lot more for their print editions. But does it have to be so confusing?

As home-delivery customers, we get charged by the month — $35.16, to be exact. But the new prices are by the week. Since we live in Greater Boston, the new price for us will be $12.25. As best as I can figure out, based on the Globe’s explanation, that’s an increase of $3 per week. Media Nation is an algebra-free zone. But if $9.25 is to $35.16 as $12.25 is to x, then I guess the new monthly price is $46.56.

Over at the Boston Phoenix, Adam Reilly, ponders moving to online-only, and asks whether his readers will pay the higher price. My answer: I couldn’t rely solely on Boston.com, the Globe’s free Web site, because its ad servers are miserably slow. It’s fine for reading a few stories, but not the whole paper.

If I had a Kindle, I would certainly consider switching to the Globe’s Kindle edition, which costs $9.99 a month. And if there were a Globe Reader e-version similar to the new Times Reader 2.0, I would consider dropping print and subscribing to that instead.

As is the case with many newspaper observers, my sense is that the advertising market won’t come back that strongly even after the recession ends. There have simply been too many systemic changes — the rise of Craigslist and the fall of downtown retail businesses to name perhaps the two most important.

In such an environment, newspapers are going to have to find a way to get readers to pick up more of the cost. It may be a hopeless task, and it may fail, as Warren Buffett warned recently. But unless they try, failure is guaranteed.

Times Reader 2.0 is a big step up

I’m trying out the new Times Reader software. It’s based on the Adobe Air platform, so there are no longer separate Windows and Mac versions. I was ambivalent about the previous version, but Times Reader 2.0 is faster and more attractive.

The new version abandons the Times print-edition font — too fussy for the computer screen — with what appears to be Cambria, an excellent choice. Photos are better integrated. Videos are part of the mix. Scrolling is smoother. You can even do the crossword puzzle on your computer — something you were supposed to be able to do on the previous version, though I couldn’t get it to work on my Mac.

The questions remain: Where does this fit in the hierarchy of news products the Times offers, and does it point the way for other papers? Times Reader costs $3.45 a week. It’s definitely a faster, smoother read than the regular, free Web edition, and, once you’ve downloaded the paper, you don’t need a WiFi connection to read it.

But free is free. In addition, the Times Web edition is a livelier place, with more ads (perhaps that will change as Times Reader gains in acceptance), blogs and other extra content. In addition, if you’re a blogger and you want to post something you see in Times Reader, you have to leave, access the Web edition and find the story again in order to grab the URL.

On the other hand, Times Reader really does offer a superior online reading experience. You’re more likely actually to read the paper rather than just skip around. And it’s a lot cheaper (we get the Sunday print edition delivered, so there’s no extra charge for us) — not to mention more environmentally friendly — than the print edition.

Might there come a day when the Times and other papers can dump their print editions and instead offer various paid electronic versions via Times Reader, the Kindle and the like? I don’t know. But I do know that Times Reader 2.0 is a huge improvement over its predecessor.

Re-Kindling the Globe (II)

Recently I threw some numbers around regarding the possibility that the Boston Globe could give away the Amazon Kindle to its home subscribers and shut down its presses.

Today, Media Nation reader M.G. points to this Time magazine story about a new, bigger Kindle that’s in the works and that might be ideal for displaying newspaper and magazine content. Yesterday, the New York Times reported on other e-readers that are being developed.

The challenge, needless to say, is to come up with an experience so compelling that people will be willing to pay for it rather than click around the free Web edition. For it to work, you need a critical mass who really want to read the paper, as opposed to spending 10 minutes grazing the headlines during their lunch hour.

Re-Kindling the Globe

Warning: Fuzzy math ahead.

As we know, the most deadly problem the newspaper business faces is that very little advertising has migrated from the print to the Web. A dollar’s worth of print advertising translates to pennies online. Thus we have initiatives like Steven Brill’s Journalism Online aimed at getting people to pay for Web content. As I argued earlier this week, it probably can’t be done.

But we do need to shift to a model by which consumers will pick up a decent share of the cost. Even after the recession, classified ads are not going to move back from Craigslist to newspapers or their Web sites. And with far fewer local businesses, display ads bring in less revenue than was the case at one time.

What are people willing to pay for? A premium, well-edited news package, portable and easier to use than a typical newspaper Web site. The print edition meets that definition, which is why I think the Boston Globe ought to charge a lot more for it, even though it would, inevitably, drive down paid circulation. The logic: As it stands, circulation revenue barely covers the cost of printing and distribution. If ad revenue is not going to recover, then readers are going to have to pay.

But there’s another possibility. Fifteen years ago folks like Roger Fidler, then of Knight Ridder, suggested that portable digital devices he called “tablets” would one day be so cheap that newspapers would give them away so they could shut down their presses. It’s possible that moment has come in the form of Amazon’s Kindle — not as cheap as Fidler had envisioned, but maybe cheap enough.

The Globe’s Sunday circulation is about 500,000. Let’s say around 400,000 of those are home-delivered. What if you gave every one of those households a free Kindle in return for a three-year, seven-day subscription to the Globe?

Let’s do the math, such as it is. A Kindle costs $359. Assume the Globe could get a price of $300 apiece in return for buying 400,000 of them. That’s $120 million. Spread it over, say, six years, and that’s $20 million a year.

The Globe already charges $10 a month for its Kindle edition. If it extracted that from 400,000 households, it would come to $48 million a year in guaranteed income for three years. (And I’m not so sure you couldn’t charge double that.) After that, subscriptions would renew automatically once a year, which is how the few online news organizations that charge for online access (the Wall Street Journal, The New Republic) handle it.

And here’s where the big savings come in: You shut down the presses. Permanently. No more paper, ink, trucks, fuel and the like. No more jobs for a lot of hard-working people, either, which would be a tragedy, but not as big a tragedy as closing the Globe.

I’ve never gotten my hands on a Kindle, but I have played with a Sony Reader, which is a similar device. The portability and the clarity of the e-ink are both well ahead of even the smallest, sharpest laptop. The Globe’s Kindle edition gets mediocre reviews. But with no more print edition to think about, I’m sure it could be upgraded considerably. And with a large regional customer base, it might prove to be an attractive platform for new kinds of advertising.

Can this work? I have no idea. As a last-ditch effort, though, I definitely think it makes more sense than simply closing the print edition and trying to sell ads on Boston.com. If we come to that point, then I definitely think the Kindle would be a better option.

Credit where it’s due: There are very few original ideas out there. Although I wrote favorably about the Kindle as a newspaper platform way back in November 2007 (here and here), I want to point out that Mike B1 floated a proposal very similar to the one I’m making today just recently.

And Tim Allik points out that Silicon Valley Insider, in January, looked at the numbers behind moving the print edition of the New York Times to the Kindle.

More Kindle-ing

In my latest for the Guardian, I continue to explore Amazon.com’s Kindle e-book — and consider why the idea of paid content draws such derision from the digital priesthood.

The Amazon Kindle and paid content

The Amazon Kindle is being marketed as the latest e-book, but I would imagine it will have a tough go of it on that basis. As Steven Levy observes in Newsweek, what could be a more perfect content-delivery system than the book? Instead, what I find intriguing is that it can be used as a portable, always-on virtual newspaper with — get this — paid subscriptions. If the Kindle succeeds, we may finally have a solution to the devastating revenue problem that newspaper and magazine publishers have created for themselves in giving away their content for free.

The Kindle strikes me as the purest realization to date of a vision I first heard articulated at a conference at Columbia University in the early 1990s. At that time, news executives fully understood that digital was the future. The idea was that content would be distributed on high-resolution digital tablets that would be so cheap they’d be given away. At night, you’d plug your tablet into the cable box on your television so that it could download newspapers, magazines and other content that you’d paid for. In the morning, you’d unplug it and take it with you. A wireless connection would allow for interactive advertising so that you could, say, make a reservation by clicking on a restaurant ad.

What we all missed, of course, was the rise of the Web, which made closed systems like that envisioned at Columbia impossible. Content quickly became free and ubiquitous. And you know the rest of the story. Yet even at a time when the idea of paying for content online is at a low ebb (the New York Times has gone entirely free, and the Wall Street Journal will soon follow suit), there remain considerable doubts that online advertising alone will ever fully support the public-service journalism we need. Just yesterday, the Times ran an intriguing op-ed by Discover columnist Jared Lanier, who argued that advertising will never add up to enough to pay the bills.

Enter the Kindle. Unlike the device we talked about at Columbia some 15 years ago, it’s not so cheap that publishers will give them away (indeed, it’s $400), and the e-ink resolution, though better than that of a typical computer screen, isn’t nearly as nice as a glossy magazine’s — a Kindle reportedly gives you 150 dots per inch, whereas even a cheap ink-jet printer will give you 600. But there are some features that are really appealing for news executives and consumers alike. For instance:

  • It’s small, portable and light, about the size of a thin paperback book. Yes, it easily passes the classic test: you can take it to the bathroom with you.
  • You don’t have to plug it in to a computer, and, because it’s connected to a cellular network, you don’t have to find a WiFi hot spot, either.
  • You can subscribe to newspapers such as the Times, the Journal and the Washington Post for considerably less than it would cost to get the print editions. The Kindle automatically downloads the entire paper, which means you are untethered from the Web. (Here is the list. The Boston Globe isn’t there, at least not yet.)

From the little bit that I’ve seen of the Kindle online, the newspapers look rather ugly. Obviously the Kindle will have to become enough of a success for newspaper designers to come up with something specifically optimized for a paperback-size vertical screen. Color would be nice, too.

The Kindle is hardly the only experiment in paid online content. The Times has something called TimesReader, which costs $15 per month and which, according to Jack Shafer, is much easier on the eyes than the Web site. (No Mac version, so I haven’t been able to test it.) But TimesReader requires you to lug your laptop around, which makes the Kindle a much more portable solution.

I do have doubts about the Kindle. It’s easy to imagine a Kindle-killer — a similar device that lets you browse the free Web via a WiFi connection and download content so that you can read it even when you’re disconnected. (We can already catch a glimmer of such devices with Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch, though I don’t want to read on a screen that small.) The free-content paradigm is powerful, and may prove too difficult to overcome.

But the Kindle does offer a possible alternative to the free, Web-based regime that has been such a boon to consumers and a bane to publishers. I hope the Kindle is at least enough of a success so that we can arrive at some judgments over the next few years.

Update: Peter Kafka of Silicon Alley Insider thinks I’m full of it, writing, “The existence of the plan has made at least gulled at least [sic! sic! sic!] one blogger, MediaNation’s Dan Kennedy, into imagining that the Kindle will help save the newspaper industry.”

Kafka notes that the Kindle has a built-in Web browser, which means you could read newspapers for free. But he fails to acknowledge that the paid versions of those papers might make for a much better reading experience, especially since you can download them ahead of time.

Update II: Actually, I’m not sure the Kindle does include a Web browser. I can’t find anything here. I would also note that Amazon touts “free built-in access” to Wikipedia, which suggests that there is no generalized browser. Otherwise, why make a big deal about Wikipedia?

Update III: It does, but not a very good one. From Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch:

In addition to being a book reader, the Kindle has some experimental features. One is a limited Web browser customized for the device with some preselected bookmarks including Amazon.com (in case you want to buy a digital camera instead of a book, which you can do just fine from the main Kindle shopping page), Wikipedia, Google, BBC News, Yahoo Finance, Weather Underground, and the Yellow Pages.

You can also enter any URL, including Bloglines (but not Google Reader, which requires Javascript and which the Kindle browser does not support). So here is a Kindle hack: you can check out your RSS feeds for the New York Times or the full feed of blogs like TechCrunch for free using the browser, rather than choose to pay a subscription to get them downloaded to the Kindle. I don’t have high hopes for the Kindle’s ability to bring back subscription revenues for publishers of any kind.

We’ll have to wait and see.