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Even more industry buzz these days surrounds Plastic Logic, a Silicon Valley stealth start-up just north of Apple. Everything in the reader it's developing will be made of plastic, from its non-LCD screen to its transistors. Recently I got a look at a Plastic Logic prototype. Like the iPhone, it's little more than a touchscreen, 8.5 in. by 11 in. (22 cm by 28 cm), linked wirelessly (like the Kindle) via a high-speed cellular network to a store that will support on-demand transactions of under a dollar. There are just two problems. Because everything about Plastic Logic's device is new, right down to a fab plant built in Dresden that's churning out parts, the first model won't reach consumers until 2010. And version 1.0 will render text in standard E-Ink black on gray. CEO Richard Archuleta says a color screen that can handle true black and white (not to mention the gamut of colors needed to reproduce the page you see now) won't be ready before 2011. (See the top 10 iPhone applications.)
An "Appgazine" Is Born
To some of us journalists floating around in the North Atlantic, that could be too late. That's why I believe the old print business ought to take advantage of what's doable now so that it's ready to provide a new reading experience once the iPod of readers finally arrives. For magazines like this one, that means creating hybrids what I've come to think of as "appgazines" that act more like computer programs than Web or printed pages. (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)
I saw my first real appgazine one day in downtown San Francisco, at Adobe, a company whose software dominates the production side of the publishing industry. Chief technology officer Kevin Lynch held in his hands a mobile Internet device made by a Chinese company called Aigo. This model, already on the market in Asia, has an easily readable touchscreen. But more interesting than how it looked was the software it was running Adobe AIR.
In geekspeak, AIR is an application runtime a small chunk of code you download for free that then becomes a platform upon which other applications can run. AIR is compatible with any Windows, Macintosh or Linux computer and has been downloaded 100 million times. "We're aiming for a consistent experience across all devices," says Lynch, touching the screen to launch an International Herald Tribune app. It looks identical to but somehow better than the paper version of that newspaper. It feels alive. "You can do anything you want with AIR. It's totally expressive," he says, with a gentle tap launching the Business section. Unlike a Web version, which needs a persistent connection and whose design is constrained by the parameters of the browser, the app fills the entire screen, immersing you in the reading experience. Once it's delivered, you can read it anywhere, even on a plane. (See pictures of the history of air communications and in-flight entertainment.)
Magazines, since they attempt to package information with big color photos, look even cooler as applications. Lynch fires up (Red)Wire, a music magazine that's delivered only as an AIR application. (The enterprise raises money for AIDS in Africa and is backed by Bono and other well-known musicians.) The appgazine looks like a folded box when it launches onscreen; Lynch clicks, and it unfolds, revealing a kind of table of contents. It's startling, it's cool. And you can't get it for free: (Red)Wire, which launched Dec. 10, charges $5.
Is this the future? I believe more than ever that the patient can be saved. But media companies need to help themselves. In the boardrooms of some of the biggest publishers, people are already discussing giving away devices with subscriptions. Why not? In the end, it's far cheaper, more efficient and more ecological for us than paper distribution and more enjoyable for you than reading on the Web. And that's the key. Because the only real question is, Brother, will you pay me a dime?