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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Why Digital Magazines will succeed

A piece on the viability of digital magazines by publishing "visionary" Bob Sacks.

Unfrtunately, I think Bob skirts a couple of important points - like the split between consumer and BtoB publishing - but its interesting thinking nonetheless.

Resistance to digital magazines is futile.

Here's why.

I've been inundated lately with e-mail requests about the viability of digital magazine editions. The letter that put me over the top was from an old and dear acquaintance, who is a senior production director, that said, "Digital editions of magazines will never get traction with the magazine-reading public." This is a ridiculous attitude. And if it is yours, too, bury it now with other ridiculous ideas like the world is flat and man will never fly.

Perhaps Jeff Gomez, author of the book "Print Is Dead," put it best when he wrote: "To expect future generations to be satisfied with printed books is like expecting the BlackBerry users of today to start communicating by writing letters, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps."

Do we expect magazine readers to become any less sophisticated as time and technology roll by? Things change, platforms evolve, business models adjust, and people's habits change, too. History is loaded with once-successful personal methodologies that are now nothing but antiquated dust. This is not a discussion of whether or not print will survive.

That is moot. What is important is how people will read in the future. Gomez's comment is spot on. How people read today gives us the smallest inkling of how people will read in the future. I'd be curious to know the number of words read on a computer screen (including PDAs, cell phones, e-readers, etc.) versus those read in print. Digital editions will play a central role in the magazine business's future success. They are growing in popularity, and eventually will become ubiquitous. The only thing holding the format back presently is a perfect substrate.

Computer screens are good for the task, but not perfect in their portability, flexibility and readability in various lighting conditions. What the industry is waiting for is a substrate that can match the robust nature and inherent abilities in digital editions. The new technology is not far-off science fiction. The future is here now; it is just not widely distributed. Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader and several others are e-paper devices, and they are available now.

These devices will not go away; they will only get better and more advanced at what they do-distribute content. In 2011, there will be full-color versions of e-paper products released. By 2025, e-paper devices will be the predominant way in which people read. And they will most likely be reading some formulation of digital-edition technology. Perhaps we need to look at it this way: When will the digital page be more user-friendly than the printed page?

Is it so impossible to foresee a future of comfort and ease holding a full-color, flexible screen that has the ability to project any book or any magazine with greater richness and depth of coverage than its printed predecessor? Gomez hypothesized that, "It's not about the page versus the screen in a technological grudge match. It's about the screen doing a dozen things the page can't do." Digitized words should count for more. "What's going to be transformed isn't just the reading of one book, but the ability to read a passage from practically any book that exists, at any time that you want to, as well as the ability to click on hyperlinks, experience multimedia, and add notes and share passages with others," Gomez noted. The same logic holds true for magazines. This is not a Hamlet-type argument, "to read or not to read."

It is a question of what format/platform we will be most comfortable reading in the future. Nowhere in history do you find society willingly going backward. As Jerry Garcia is reported to have once said, "You are either on the bus or off the bus."