Thursday, July 03, 2003

In a newspaper interview recently I was asked when we might see the demise of newspapers, books and magazines printed on paper. It's a great question because there are lots of different angles to it. I think it will be awhile...

The PDF file for this single newspaper page is 306 KB.
A Sunday paper of these pages represents 100 megabytes of data.

Angle #1 is habit. Hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. have been reading newspapers, books and magazines all their lives. A majority of those people will go to their graves preferring the paper version of these publications simply because that is what they grew up with.

Angle #2 is access. Hundreds of millions of people either do not have, or do not want to have, access to the Internet. Computers are uncomfortable, computers are complicated, computers are expensive, and computers are intimidating to lots of people. As long as more than half the population never uses the Internet -- and that could be the case for decades -- we will have paper versions of newspapers, books and magazines.

Angle #3 is the "always on" aspect of newspapers, books and magazines. You don't need power to read a newspaper. You don't need Wi-Fi or network access. You don't have to remember a password. You don't have to turn a newspaper off during takeoff and landing like you do with a laptop. You can read newspapers, books and magazines easily on the subway, on the toilet, on the beach, in bed, by the pool....

Angle #4 is the fact that a magazine or a book provides a Really Good user interface. It's funny that this interface was invented centuries ago. Turning pages is a very quick, easy way to access the written word. You can also remember "places" in a book in a way that is easier than on the Internet.

Angle #5 is permanence. If you have a book on your shelf, a magazine on your desk or a newspaper article in a file, you know that: a) it will always be where you put it (barring a fire or other disaster), b) it will never evaporate (no broken links, no out-of-business companies, no "server busy" messages, no "Sorry but your cable service will be unavailable between Tuesday and Friday this week", etc.), and c) it will not change or be re-edited.

Angle #6 is the impressively large and extremely high-resolution screen that paper creates. Take newspapers. A typical newspaper, when you open it up, measures 22 inches high by 25 inches wide. It has approximately 300 DPI resolution. That means that an open newspaper has something like 6,600 x 7,500 pixels. The largest screens today can display 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. These displays tend to be heavy and expensive right now. They have perhaps 80 DPI resolution. You cannot carry a display like this with you in most cases. It will be a few years before we have lightweight, inexpensive, portable, always-on, foldable 6,600 x 7,500 pixel screens measuring 22 inches high by 25 inches wide. People would be very happy with lightweight, inexpensive, portable, always-on, foldable displays that are much smaller, say 8.5 inches by 11 inches, that have decent resolution. Even that will take a few years.

Finally, angle #7 is download speed. Think about a newspaper. A page of 6,600 x 7,500 pixels represents something like 66 megabytes of data. A big Sunday paper might have 150 full-size pages. So a newspaper arriving on your doorstep is like receiving a 10 gigabyte download. Even if you assume 100-to-1 compression, it's still 100 megabytes of data. When the guy throws the paper on your doorstep, he is throwing 100 megabytes at you in a few seconds. A magazine is normally printed in full color with 1,200 DPI resolution. A 150 page magazine uncompressed represents something like 50 gigabytes of data. 100-to-1 compression gets it down to 500 megabytes. Considering that more than half of the people on the Internet are still using dialup lines, a 500 megabyte download is difficult to imagine. Even when you reduce the resolution way down -- say 72 DPI -- it's a lot of data to move around page by page. The Web interface over a dialup line is slow and tedious compared to instantly flipping the beautiful, high-resolution pages of a magazine.

Oh yeah... then there's money. People will pay $20 for a book. They will pay $3 for a magazine. They will pay 50 cents for a newspaper. And advertisers are happy to pay thousands of dollars for newspaper and magazine ads. This tends not to be the case on the Internet at the moment.

Given all this, it might be a decade or three before we see the demise of paper...

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