Richard Waters The electronic newspaper: still a work in progress

First, full disclosure: I have a very direct interest in Plastic Logic’s electronic reader. That is partly because, today, the company announced a deal with the Financial Times and others to put content on its device, which is due out next year. But there’s more to it than that.

The Plastic Logic Reader offers an alluring promise to publishers who depend on advertising. With a bigger screen than Amazon’s Kindle (latest model out today), it may one day become a device onto which newspaper and magazine publishers can transfer their existing products – and business models.

One side-effect of that would be to keep me in a job. Unfortunately, though, that day still looks some way off.

I got to visit the company and handle a prototype of the new Reader last week. It’s a thin, 11.5 x 8 inch device with an E-Ink display and just one button. The plastic screen itself is flexible, though the final product isn’t – a slight disappointment, since there’s a powerful tactile pleasure to handling bendable screens that communicates very powerfully their potential to become paper replacements (Plastic Logic says eventually all the components will be made from plastic, making the whole device bendable, but that is some way off.)

The software interface for the touch screen is still under development, but the intention is to recognise a number of gestures – swipe to turn a page, circle a piece of text to highlight it, and so on. The screen is aimed at business users who want to read and interact lightly with reports and other types of business information, and the screen size is meant to handle graphics and other illustrations better than a smaller digital book reader.

However, to become an appealing medium for advertisers and to show off its full graphics potential, the Reader really needs colour, and that isn’t coming for 3-5 years. The E-Ink screen is great for text, but a Kindle can handle that too. There are also plans to bring video to the display, but that is even further off.

Plastic Logic has a new plant in Germany all ready to go for when production begins. It aims to have pilot models out later this year, with the device due to go on sale some time in 2010.

Getting to market will be a major milestone for this ambitious project, which has $200m of backing. But the real selling points for the technology look like they won’t be on display for a while, and the first models may not be a true guide to the longer-term potential (even if they do come with access to the FT).