Web-linked touchscreen tablet that repurposes print content unveiled by Skiff
It is thinner than a CD case and is made of a flexible sheet of stainless steel foil that won't shatter if you drop it. Yet the Skiff Reader, a touchscreen device unveiled last week, could be the salvation of newspapers and magazines challenged by the slow death of print.
The Reader, developed by an offshoot of the Hearst Corporation and drooled over at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is undoubtedly a demonstration of faith, the technological equivalent of the concept cars that get wheeled out at the Frankfurt Motor Show every year. Boasting an 11.5-inch screen that is larger than anything offered by Amazon or Sony and with a better picture quality (1,200 x 1,600 pixels), its main job is to demonstrate how well highly customised text-based content can run on tablets that connect to the web via Wi-Fi and 3G networks.
It is being eyed by most of the world's biggest newspaper groups, who hope that tablet devices – some 50 to 60 of which could hit the market this year – will help with the transition into the digital world.
In recent months, Time Inc and the Swedish publisher Bonnier have produced two demos of mocked-up colour tablets that open up possibilities beyond the lookalike pages of editorial content that clutter the web. Tablet-based content should also represent a big improvement on the boring pdf-style digital editions that most publishers produce.
Gil Fuchsberg, the former journalist and new media deal-maker who has overseen Skiff from its origins as an R&D project within Hearst Corporation, argues that the time is right for magazines and newspapers to follow books, which are available on electronic readers such as Kindle. Fuchsberg says he looks forward to travelling on the tube in London surrounded by commuters reading touchscreen tablets.
Industry analysts suggest that 5m e-readers have been sold worldwide since Sony launched the world's first example of the service in 2004.
Fuchsberg is aiming to convert the rest of the world: "Billions of literate adults", he believes, will eventually exchange print for digital screens.
Backed by an estimated $35m, Skiff has developed software to help publishers repurpose print content "at high volume" for tablet devices.
But Skiff's ambitions don't stop there. The company, which is less than three years old, also aims to take on Apple and Amazon. Fuchsberg plans to set up a store to sell e-reader content to consumers. He wants to sell his proposition to any publisher worried that Apple might grab a dominant share of the market for selling e-magazines and e-newspapers, or those irritated by Amazon's habit of keeping 70% of the money that punters pay to read newspapers on Kindle.
Fuchsberg says he believes in "treating publishers as partners, rather than commoditised content providers". Although he declines to reveal Skiff's terms, he makes them sound far better than the 70/30 split that Amazon offers to publishers. They may even represent an improvement on the 50/50 revenue-sharing deal that Sony is rumoured to have offered News Corporation to get an exclusive edition of the Wall Street Journal on to its device.
"We think publishers deserve the majority of the revenue from both advertising and content," he says. "Publishers have to take control of their own fate. To have a say in the value chain requires more than just creating content."
Publishers are interested, Fuchsberg insists. "We already have agreements with many publishers," he says, declining to name them. "We have many others in discussion." Skiff's e-reading software, he adds, will come pre-installed on many of the tablets that hit the market this year.
Skiff is also room for adverts on tablets, unlike Amazon or Sony. "In the real world," Fuchsberg says, "publishers generate most of their revenue from advertising. It's got to be part of the mix."
For advertisers, the colour touchscreens that will become available during the next year hold the promise of bold creative work and vast quantities of targeting data. "We don't want to be overly intrusive or invasive," says Fuchsberg. "But a connected device knows who you are, where you are, and what you're reading. It knows what you've purchased in the past six months. As a result, it's better equipped than conventional analogue print to do targeting."
Given the recent history of mobile advertising, this may be greeted with scepticism. But Skiff has some factors working in its favour. Among them is the stellar line-up of talent the company has hired, which includes notable names from Intel, Microsoft and Sony.
Dharmash Mistry, the former digital strategist for Emap who now works for the private equity firm Balderton Capital, likes what he has seen so far. "I think they are doing a very good job," he says. Mistry adds that Skiff's software platform is "really robust".
At some point, a project as ambitious as this will probably need additional capital. Asked whether he can imagine investing, Mistry's response is suggestive. He says: "We're not an investor … yet."
Torsten De Riese, the business development manager at Guardian News & Media, will not say if the Guardian will sign up with Skiff, but he is impressed by what he has seen. "It's a really publisher-friendly model," he says.
"Every device has its own challenges and opportunities in terms of presenting content. What we really need is help with delivering our content on these huge emerging multiple platforms and devices."
Skiff is in the market to help publishers do that. Whether it can do so at the right price and win over consumers remains to be seen.