Sunday, December 07, 2008

Papers missing in action as technologies develop

MIAMI — For Gloria Formosa, one of this city’s leading stock brokers, it’s an
absolute necessity she remain informed about the day’s news headlines.

Entrusted with millions of dollars of her clients’ money, she and her customers
know that an uninformed broker can make investment mistakes that can result
in costly — even ruinous — mistakes.

That’s why, shortly after Formosa wakes up and starts her morning routine, she
suddenly becomes aware of the day’s top news stories. What’s more, she does this
without using a Web site, turning on her BlackBerry, listening to the radio, watching
television or even reading a printed copy of her local paper, El Herald.

Earlier this year, Formosa, 45, did something a lot of women her age might not be expected to do: She had herself injected with nanobots, microscopic-size robots programmed to receive and deliver Bloomberg News Service headlines and
stories, stock and commodity prices — 24/7 — directly to her brain.

By the time she’s dressed, Formosa has a good idea of how the markets will perform
that day.

“I’m always updated,” she said. “With nanobots, I’m never caught off guard by
some event that could affect my clients’ investments. I’m way ahead of the game!”

In addition to being used to treat heart ailments, correct blood pressure and monitor
diabetes, nanobots are now employed by some news services, like Bloomberg and
Thomson Reuters, as a means of keeping their audiences informed throughout the day. There’s a chance, their executives say, that nanobots could even replace their
Web sites.

— The Wall Street Journal, “Invasion of the Nanobots: One Broker’s Attempt to
Stay Informed,” Sept. 3, 2032

While this scenario might seem like something out of a science fiction novel, there’s a better than even chance it just might happen. Nanotechnology is already in use, and nanobots — microscopic-size robots — will soon be employed to help people fight diseases, expand their minds and, perhaps, update them about the news.

Indeed, a host of recent technological developments, which include flexible display,’s Kindle, The Plastic Logic reader and nanotechnology, should force the daily newspaper industry to start answering a tough question: What will society look like a generation from now?

Consider the U.S. Army’s Army After Next program. Created after the first Iraqi War, this program was designed to help the Army determine how to defeat threats it might encounter in 30 years. Now called Unified Quest, the program today encompasses all military branches, intelligence agencies, the State and Treasury departments, and academics in cultural anthropology. The goal remains the same: formulating possible
solutions to the threats, wars and battles the United States may encounter a generation from now.

“These guys make your head hurt when discussing future scenarios,” said Harvey Perritt, a spokesman for the Army’s Training & Doctrine Command Headquarters in Norfolk, Va. “Even NASA shows up at these meetings, laying out how space might play a
role in any future scenario.”

Similar approach

The daily newspaper industry should undertake a similar intellectual exercise,
exploring how it will operate 30 years from now. The technology that’s on the
immediate horizon will further modify how consumers view newspapers. As a result, newspaper publishers must determine how it will own the future and remain competitive in an even more technologically advanced setting.

A sampling of what’s on the horizon:

•The Flexible Display Center, at Arizona State University, is developing, in
conjunction with the Army, technology that will spawn a variety of new products
including laptops with foldable screens. The Army funds the Center because it
plans to equip soldiers with PDAs, laptops and maps using this technology.

“Flexible display glass is rugged, lightweight, bendable and roll-able,” said Greg Raupp, the Center’s director. “It brings a new ball game of whole new products.”

The Center’s annual budget is about $14 million, with about $10 million coming from the Army and the remaining $4 million coming from industry sources and the university. As of now, though, there isn’t a single newspaper or media company sponsoring the Center.

Raupp said a newspaper company could sponsor the Center for a minimum of $50,000 annually to reap some benefits from the research. The cash outlay can be reduced if a newspaper can provide other value to Center projects, Raupp said.

•, attempting to sell more books in this digital age, is selling the Kindle, a handheld, wireless reader that downloads books, magazines and 17 different newspapers, among them The New York Times.

While Amazon says newspapers are a key Kindle partner, the Webtailer’s primary goal is to sell more books. The Kindle offers consumers a new reading and buying experience of print media. While it’s difficult to say how well Kindle sales are doing — Amazon refuses to release those numbers — devices like it will become more popular.

•Plastic Logic, a Mountain View, Calif., firm, last month demonstrated its flexible e-newspaper reader. The Plastic Logic Reader offers users a larger screen than the handheld, wireless reader from The Plastic Logic device — which goes on sale next June — is built with proprietary flexible display technology. The whole screen is active; there are no buttons.

Plastic Logic is talking to newspaper publishers about making their content available on their new, wireless reader, according to Vice President of Marketing Joe Eschbach.

“We’re ideally suited for newspaper content because the formats of newspapers are respected along with their branding and we can support their advertising.” He said the Reader “will be priced for massive adoption — quickly.”

Looking ahead

Author, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil says that 21st century technology will focus on “making things smaller.” In an essay published in the book Invisible Future: The Seamless Integration of Technology into Everyday Life, Kurzweil said that nanobot technology “will be feasible within 30 years.”

“Nanobot technology will … expand our minds in any imaginable way,” wrote Kurzweil. “Brain implants based on … nanobots will ultimately expand our memories a trillionfold … and since the nanobots are communicating with each other over a wireless area network, they can create … new hybrid biological-nonbiological networks,” Kurzweil said.

Army spokesman Perritt says nanotechnology is already employed by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan so they can see around corners before risking a fatal turn.

Unfortunately, just as with the development of the Internet, not a single newspaper is helping direct the course of these new technologies. The way newspapers will be consumed and perceived, by readers and advertisers, a generation from now is being determined with no input from newspapers.

The question the daily newspaper industry needs to answer is this: Will it catch up, join, lead or be left behind as this technology becomes reality? Will the newspaper industry own its future or will it repeat its current behavior — massive layoffs and continued downsizing of its printed product — just as it has reacted to the competition it’s experiencing from the Internet?

Consider options

Kurzweil says the world will experience 20,000 years of progress in the 21st century. The newspaper industry must start determining its future — today.

Consider this warning from Marshall McLuhan in his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man: “The classified ads (and stock market quotations) are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.”

That book was published in 1964.

Imagine, the newspaper industry might be a thriving business today if it had taken the time 44 years ago to consider all of the possible future threats — no matter how far-fetched — to a key revenue stream.

What will the daily newspaper industry look like in 44 years? Maybe the nanobot knows.

Editor's Note: This article, written by the correspondent to this blog, first appeared in the October 2008 edition of Newspapers & Technology magazine.

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