Top publishers link arms in e-reader push

An existential crisis, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. So it is that five media companies that spend most of their time in bitter competition with one another are now joining forces in a new venture intended to midwife the arrival of portable digital magazines and newspapers on a mass scale.

So new is this venture, it doesn't yet have a name or an executive team. What it does have is five owners who collectively represent most of the magazines and a goodly segment of the newspapers Americans read: News Corp. (NWS), Time Warner (TWX), Hearst, Conde Nast and Meredith (MDP). Marshaling so much muscle might seem like overkill, but it's in keeping with the scale of the challenge, John Squires, who's serving as managing director until a CEO can be chosen, tells DailyFinance. "It's a huge undertaking, both technically and from a creative standpoint," he says.
Squires comes to the project from Time Inc., where he's spent the last 20 years, most recently as the executive in charge of exploring digital business models for its titles, which include Time, Sports Illustrated and People. In his new role, he'll oversee an effort to develop applications that will translate the experience of reading print publications into the e-reader environment. "We want to have a highly-textured reading application that redners the content of newspapers and magazines in ways consumers will recognize and enjoy," he says.

One tiny stumbling block: The devices that will enable the sort of reading experience Squires et al envision don't exist yet. So trying to create applications that will work seamlessly across them is a bit like shooting scenes for a movie that hasn't been scripted yet.

"There's a pretty big platform issue here," Squires says. It helps that the device makers have, says Squires, shown interest in working closely with the new venture (which I really hope gets a name soon, because it's awkward to keep referring to a company that doesn't have one). "We're already getting a lot of interest from the hardware manufacturers," he says. "We've got great relationships with Apple, terrific relationships with Sony, terrific relationships with HP."

Beyond Drafting Open Standards

Squires believes a device capable of replicating the user experience simulated in this Time Inc.-produced demo video will be on the market sometime in 2010.

"I think this is a pretty incredible opportunity for the manufacturers," he adds. "They're going to know a great deal about what content they have available to them before they launch a product, and I think that's been one of the stumbling blocks to getting this market to advance."

There's more to the venture than just drafting open standards for electronic publications. The plan is also to create a digital storefront where consumers can purchase their e-copies and e-subscriptions, as well as associated apps. That part of the enterprise is already generating comparisons to Apple's iTunes store. "Any kind of multiple-product retailer is obviously a good point of reference," Squires says. There's also an emphasis on creating new forms of advertising that will make e-editions a truly attractive medium for marketers.

I asked Squires what the time line is like for turning these lofty ambitions into reality. "In two to three months, we're going to know a lot more," he said. "My hope would be that early in the year we'll have announcements about how our product roadmap is starting to develop." And, ideally, a name, too.
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