The Tablet PC’s Implications For Newspapers

By: Jim Rosenberg

Neither ink on paper nor HTML on the Web, an edition designed for Tablet PCs combines the convenience and familiarity of a newspaper with the storage, searching, and communications of computer files.

Years of parallel development in platform technology and publication design have yielded a practical, versatile device and an attractive, navigable news document well suited to the Tablet PC. Building on earlier concepts, both date from 1991, when Roger Fidler, formerly of Knight Ridder, devised a prototype newspaper for an electronic pad, and Fujitsu produced the first of what it calls its 18 generations of tablet computers.

The device had to put laptop-PC capabilities into a three-pound, letter-size case less than an inch thick. It needed a high-resolution screen that responds to the touch and stroke of a stylus, a suitable operating system, acceptable handwriting recognition, and easy docking to download, recharge, and sync with a desktop PC. A keyboard could be built in or attachable.

After 10 years, the technology is now affordable and powerful, with faster processors, slimmer, longer-lasting batteries, better handwriting recognition, and more-pervasive wireless local- and wide-area networks, the Fujitsu PC Corp.’s Kyle Thornton said at the Open eBook Forum’s Tablet PC Digital Publishing Conference in New York Dec. 5. Launched a month earlier, the tablets will require continued improvement in those areas, as well as physical durability and voice recognition, if they are to succeed in a laptop-saturated market, said Thornton, Fujitsu’s senior product-marketing manager. Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates has suggested solid-state discs may be incorporated into a future generation of tablets.

Adobe Systems Inc. technologies are helping propel publishing onto tablets, where automating page assembly consists of creating templates and tags, said James Alexander, Adobe’s cross-media-publishing product management director. Using extensible markup language (XML) for placing, displaying, and linking content components, “You want to do tagging as close to the content creation as possible,” he said, noting that Adobe InDesign software “has XML under the hood.” Adobe Acrobat will generate and read the portable-document-format output and Adobe Content Server can handle digital-rights management.

Software and hardware suppliers hope a $2,000 tablet can replace a stack of documents and a laptop, making it seem like a money saver rather than a money waster. Positioning tablets as successors to notebook PCs (which some now resemble) also may overcome objections to the notion of a two-computer desk, which Gates showed at the November launch of Tablet PCs running his firm’s Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system.

Still, it is portable computing where Gates last left most of his fingerprints, in 1981. And probably nowhere was it more appreciated than at newspapers. At the launch, he remarked, “The last Microsoft product where I wrote the majority of the code” was for the Tandy TRS 100.

Whatever appeal a Tablet PC holds for readers in general, subscribers to a digital daily may need that value in versatility, for it remains to be seen if an electronic edition is more desirable and convenient than a paper edition for most newspaper readers. No print publication needs more help than the complex, oversize newspaper. The challenge is squeezing a 12-by-21-inch page onto a 6-by-9-inch screen.

A Los Angeles Times pilot edition proposed for early next year (subscription or single copy) will use Fidler’s “Kent” format (for Kent State University, where he directs the Institute for CyberInformation): three types of hyperlinked, near-magazine-size pages, because “scrolling is something people find annoying. [It’s] very difficult to find where you are on the page.” Along the right are navigation tabs denoting sections.

Looking like section fronts, summary pages preserve the experience of browsing a newspaper. Headlines and summaries link to full-text content pages with a consistent three-column format and the latest type technology, ensuring “no difficulty in reading the full story,” said Fidler. Creating the third page type, a table of contents and advertiser index, is semiautomated.

Clicking on unobtrusive ads or images can either link to full-page ads and larger images or launch video clips — news footage or ad content such as movie trailers. Until compression improves, video remains minimal to keep download time short. Full text of the L.A. Times‘ national edition occupies 10 to 12 megabytes, Fidler said. With sound and video, the edition may not exceed 25 MB.

As important as format or function, offline availability means reading anytime, anywhere, without use being recorded. Fidler said studies show all age groups like the format, and that “pages with advertising turned out to be more appealing.”

In development are “digital news books” that collect information a newspaper has published on certain subjects.

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