Advancements in screens for portable devices and electronic paper could make printed newspapers irrelevant, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger predicted before a House of Lords committee this summer.
‘You and I might not like to read our Guardian editorials on a mobile phone but there is a generation coming up that finds that quite natural,’Rusbridger told the communications committee hearing before predicting ‘an iPod moment in newspapers where a device comes along that is so portable and easy that the print version will become increasingly a thing of the past”.
Whether, as some web pundits have predicted, the release of the Apple iPhone today (Friday), or its phoneless cousin, iPod Touch, is this revolutionary device – or even a major step towards one – remains to be seen.
For the moment, newspapers are betting on a more gradual development of mobile news delivery.
‘We’re well away from the holy grail of e-paper, but the iPhone is amazing – utterly, mindbogglingly amazing,’says Stephen Pinches, Financial Times product manager for news products.
‘I was very sceptical about it when I heard it was coming out, but if you play with it for five minutes and surf any number of news websites, you very quickly see that it’s a very credible way of reading a newspaper site online,’Pinches said.
New devices threatening to bring desktop-like web browsing to mobile devices are just part of a series of changes that are driving growth in mobile traffic to news web sites and spurring a spate of mobile launches.
The News of the World, Sun Online and Times Online have all launched new mobile products this year, and Telegraph.co.uk is reportedly preparing to follow suit within six months.
Much like the fixed internet a decade ago, high-speed access is becoming affordable, metered tariffs are giving way, and content is moving out of paid-for portals onto an open web of advertising-funded web sites.
‘There’s only about 20 per cent penetration of 3G handsets at the moment – we expect that to continue to grow in the next year,’said Nicholas Wheeler, managing director of ITN On, whose 38 journalists produce video news designed specifically for mobile.
‘Eighty per cent of people are supposed to change their handsets every 12 months, so most of those will soon be 3G handsets.
‘There’s very little sale of non-3G handsets now,’said Wheeler.
Some operators have begun introducing pricing plans that replace metered access with flat-rate data tariffs.
‘There is an almost direct correlation between how cheap it is to get data and how much it’s being used,’said Ilicco Elia, mobile manager for Reuters Europe.
‘Exactly the same thing happened when broadband took off in the UK.
‘Having said that, there is still a long way to go,’he said, stressing that flat-rate data tariffs are only very recent developments from the network operators.
The international news agency consolidated its online and mobile services this summer, and has moved away from exclusive deals on portals towards on the open mobile internet.
‘Reuters,’Elia said, ‘is currently in a transition from having its news exclusively on operators’ portals.”
Most newspapers’ mobile operations have no specific staff for their mobile services, instead they use automated tools to adapt their web content for smaller screens. But publishers are now realising that a more sophisticated approach is needed.
‘Mobile products tend not to work so well if they just rehash what’s on their websites, so we stepped backed and looked at how people consume information on their mobile, particularly when and where they use it,’said Zach Leonard, digital publisher at Times Media, which recently launched Times Mobile.
The FT has been consolidating its existing mobile services to two products – a mobile website (m.ft.com) and a slightly faster, Java-based headline reader for premium subscribers.
Like the FT, The Times expects business users with Blackberry devices to be an important audience for its mobile services.
Both newspapers are planning upgrades aimed specifically at users of the ubiquitous mobile email device.
‘There has been a definite shift in the way large media publishers want to have a direct dialogue with their consumers,’said Rick Gleave, who joined Trinity Mirror as head of interactive last month after five years as head of mobile for News Corp’s Australian division.
Gleave said Trinity Mirror, which has not yet launched any mobile services, would be looking at developing mobile services both for the Mirror and its group of regional newspapers.
‘People buy the Mirror – you can buy the paper, you can go online. But now we want the third publishing platform,’he said.
‘What we’re not doing is completely republishing all of what’s online. We’ll be taking different bits of information, such as showbiz and sport and business news where you’ve got big fan bases – and we’ll provide providing that to what I’d call a snacking generation – people who are on the go.”