Is E Ink Working on Hearst’s New E-Reader?

2/27/09Follow @wroush

According to a report today in Fortune, publishing giant Hearst Corp., owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other prominent newspapers and magazines, is developing an e-reading device similar to the Amazon Kindle 2 and the Sony PRS-700.

Kenneth Bronfin, head of Hearst’s interactive media group, wouldn’t give Fortune details about the device, but he said Hearst had a “deep expertise” (in Fortune‘s paraphrase) in e-reading technology. “I can’t tell you the details of what we are doing, but I can say we are keenly interested in this, and expect these devices will be a big part of our future,” Bronfin said.

Bronfin is almost certainly referring to Hearst’s longtime relationship with Cambridge, MA-based E Ink, the company that developed the “electronic paper” screen technology at the heart of both the Amazon and Sony devices. As I noted in my interview earlier this week with E Ink co-founder and CEO Russ Wilcox, Hearst Interactive Media is among a group of strategic investors that have together poured more than $150 million into E Ink’s low-power, microcapsule-based, non-backlit display technology.

According to Hearst insiders cited in the Fortune article, the new device will have a screen that’s larger than the 6-inch-diagonal screen on the Kindle 2 and the PRS-700—probably about the size of a standard 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper. That’s consistent with what Wilcox told me in our interview. “What you’ll see next is a great range of screen sizes,” Wilcox said when I asked him what improvements E Ink was focusing on post-Kindle. “So far the industry has been using the 6-inch size, which has helped to drive down the cost for everybody, by consolidating on one manufacturing process. But we are starting to introduce displays that are in many different sizes.”

I’ve been unable to reach E Ink for comment this evening, but the company is unlikely to confirm any details of the Fortune story, given its customers’ sensitivities. Wilcox did tell me E Ink has to be “very careful” about managing its relationships with rivals like Amazon and Sony, who use the same 6-inch E Ink screen and the same electronic drivers in their competing devices.

TechFlash and other outlets are speculating today on what the Hearst disclosure could mean for the company’s chain of newspapers, many of which have been teetering financially. (The Seattle P-I said on January 9 that Hearst had put the paper up for sale, and that if no takers could be found within 60 days, it would close. The 60 days will be up on March 10.) Hearst reportedly plans to sell the devices to its publishing subsidiaries—which would in turn sell them or perhaps give them to readers—and keep a slice of the subscription revenues for itself. So the day when news organizations like Hearst turn to e-paper delivery as a way around the crushing expense of printing and delivering old-fashioned newsprint could arrive much sooner than anyone anticipated. It’s unclear, though, whether such a delivery system could be brought online in time to save struggling papers like the P-I and the Chronicle.

But it does seem that the Fortune article’s closing question—”Will readers give up their newspapers and magazines for these new readers?”—will turn out to be moot. Instead, the question will be how many newspaper and magazine companies can afford to keep publishing on paper.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Schmutter

    Delivery is beside the point. The delivery system is changing and maybe Hearst is joining others to develop some new electronic reading technology. So what? There is still no business model to pay for content. Xconomy doesn’t make money yet, but is floating on the hope of future profit. Meanwhile, newspapers, which have produced 90 percent of original content (as opposed to reactionary blogging and commentary on the news), will continue to close. Hearst is closing papers while investing in a gizmo. Great.