Toy Story: Are Those 5,000 Magazines in Your Messenger Bag, Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

reagan 23 Toy Story: Are Those 5,000 Magazines in Your Messenger Bag, Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?Eight months ago, after more than 14 years working as a digital-media business developer at News Corp., Daren Benzi left his job and joined a relatively unknown company called Plastic Logic, based in the same neighborhood as Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. The company is building what they hope will be a Kindle killer—the first mobile digital reader made specifically for newspapers and magazines.

“The demand for our product is overwhelming,” Mr. Benzi told The Observer by phone from his home office in New Jersey. As Plastic Logic’s vice president of business development, Mr. Benzi spends only about a week a month in Mountain View, Calif., at Plastic Logic’s U.S. headquarters, using the rest of his time to take meetings in Manhattan, trying to woo publishers to partner with the company.

So far, the Financial Times, USA Today and digital publishers like Zinio—which converts print magazines from Cosmopolitan and InStyle to Mother Jones and The Economist into digital formats—have, among others, partnered with Plastic Logic. “I see a lot of companies who want to be with us tomorrow,” Mr. Benzi said.
Current e-reader products on the market weren’t made with print media in mind—they were made for books. Sure, the “Kindle store” currently offers e-friendly formats for newspapers and magazines, but the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader have hokey black-and-white screens that seem to replicate the inside of a book.

Apple’s iPhone has free, handy apps, such as Stanza and eReader, to compete with expensive digital readers, but those palm-size screens don’t provide enough room for the visual experiences magazines will need to appeal to readers and advertisers—those full-page, color pictures, “charticles” and information graphics, not to mention leggy models splayed across two-page spreads.

“We’ve worked closely with our magazine partnerships, our newspaper partnerships, to make sure we’re building something that they would publish to,” Mr. Benzi said. “It doesn’t mean books aren’t important to us, because they are. But we are able to go to magazine and newspaper companies with a different type of reader for them.”

Plastic Logic is developing an e-reader with a display that is about 8.5 inches wide and 10.7 inches long—the same size as most magazines and nearly twice the size of the Kindle screen (and more than four times the size of iPhone and Blackberry interfaces—where many of us skim our New York Times headlines in the morning).

Their prototype is made out of plastic, so it’s lightweight, and thinner than a pad of paper. Mr. Benzi said the company’s “secret sauce” is its flexible screen, which can feel a bit like a magazine and has an added bonus of making the device nearly unbreakable.

Plastic Logic plans to release a product on the market by 2010. Once they perfect the actual product’s look, Plastic Logic would include some kind of “content store” similar to what is available on the Kindle. Users could subscribe to publications, and new issues would update automatically—and they could download their own Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PDFs onto the device, too. Currently, the reader incorporates black-and-white display technology from Cambridge-based company E Ink, just like the Kindle.

But color screens are “on our road map,” Mr. Benzi told The Observer. “We’ll either get there with E Ink or another way. The one thing we have noticed with publishers, even though they know it’s on our road map, is they say as soon as I get there [with color screens], they’ll come with me.”

The success of the product may also depend on a larger market shift. Amazon, which is notoriously tight-lipped, hasn’t released official sales numbers for the Kindle, but Citi analyst Mark Mahaney guesses that Amazon is selling anywhere from 190,000 to 500,000 devices, in their first-year rate. Kindle’s numbers aren’t exactly on fire—yet.

About 376,000 iPods were sold during their first year on the market, 2001. In his 2005 book, The Cult of iPod, Leander Kahney described how the iPod became an icon—not only by redefining Apple as a leader in product design, but also by creating a culture around digital music that no other device maker could compete with. “More than a computer, a car, or a fancy pair of shoes, it’s part of your makeup, your personality,” he wrote. “What’s on it—the music—tells who you are. Music is deep in your heart and soul.”

Perhaps magazines and newspapers can cling to their cultural and personal relevance with an e-reader. How many of us still keep old issues of the magazines that defined our teenagehood—like Sassy, the precursor to Jane, or Spy magazine—not only for their content, but for the advertisements, which are a pop-culture time capsule of their own? The Web is a great platform for specific articles displayed on a page, and some Web whizzes are working on better visual experiences to mimic browsing an entire, themed issue of a magazine or newspaper. That’s key for branding and advertisers. On a digital reader in the right size, readers will experience the same colorful, image-heavy design experience that they see in the print editions—without the added pains of lugging around a laptop.

So could the next digital reader be the “iPod of magazine publishing?” Will a tech toy save the media business?

“I think [publishers] are kind of pissing in the wind,” Mr. Kahney told The Observer. He said Apple “already has a device and it’s called the iPhone.”

But perhaps Apple’s e-reader will come in a different form. A rumor in Mac-obsessed circles is that Mr. Jobs is working on his answer to the netbook, the slimmed-down version of laptops with smaller screens and reduced processors. Apple’s version would “be like the Kindle but with a multi-touch screen, like a 9-inch iPod touch,” Mr. Kahney said. That would mean a magazine-size, touch-sensitive, full-color tablet that would also have basic Internet, iChat, and Skype videoconferencing capabilities—the perfect environment for digital magazines and newspapers.

Maybe a toy alone won’t save print media. But certainly publishers must evolve those inky materials into digital products that work not only on the Web—but on the next Kindle killer, too. Mr. Jobs, we’re waiting.

greagan@observer.com