Newspapers, for the most part, have embraced the world of online content, which, in turn, has generated additional revenue streams. However, the market for electronic newspapers remains largely untapped, and Orange is attempting to create its own niche.
The telecoms firm is trialling a service called Read & Go in France, and has signed up five leading French newspapers, including Le Monde, Le Parisien and L'Equipe, to roll out content. The A5-sized device uses advanced technology called 'ePaper' and 'eInk' and includes wi-fi and a 3G mobile chip so news can be refreshed every hour.
The difference between this technology and standard internet access to newspaper content is that the product has the look and feel of a newspaper, and thus attempts to hold readers' attention for a sustained period, which could prove key to attracting advertisers.
To provide an experience similar to that of reading a traditional newspaper, the device uses advanced display technology that simulates the quality of print and, unlike a laptop screen, does not become unreadable in bright sunlight. In that sense, Read & Go offers a service vastly different from mobile services, in which many UK newspapers are investing heavily.
This is not the first such product on the market - Amazon already offers Kindle, an electronic book - but it is the first dedicated offering for newspapers.
Orange has confirmed that, should the trial prove a success in France, the model will be adapted for other international markets.
Stephanie Hospital, vice-president of digital audience marketing for Orange, says that while the service is only at the customer trial stage, it has the potential to become a leading product in the newspaper industry.
'This is an innovative way of managing content, and one of the most exciting aspects is that it allows newspapers to create their own style on the product, which holds a lot of attraction for them,' she adds.
The advertising potential of such a venture is the most appealing factor for newspaper management boards, especially as the printed news sector is facing a tough operating climate, most crucially at regional levels.
A well-designed electronic newspaper device has the potential to lead to highly innovative, location-specific marketing, which is being tested by Orange as part of the trial.
'We have not finalised our business model for the product, but eventually we would like to see every newspaper look after its own advertising and initiatives,' says Hospital.
Reactions from the newspaper industry have been mixed, although most welcome any advances in technology which offer access to more readers. 'This may not be the future for newspapers, and it may not be the last product of its kind to be launched, but it will teach us something about where we are going,' says Marc Sands, director of marketing at The Guardian. 'What is interesting is the idea of replicating an actual newspaper, which, obviously, is a different proposition from that being offered online.'
From Orange's perspective, the product also offers a neat brand tie-up. Patrick Thakrar, interaction director at Mediaedge:cia, believes the initiative is a clear example of a telecom brand looking to strengthen its relationship with its target audience.
'The backing of leading titles gives this product strong credibility,' he says. 'The industry continues to evolve, and Orange has been a pioneer in digital product extensions. If this works, I am sure we'll see it extend to other markets.'
Orange's e-newspaper product will not be the last innovation in this area. What is, as yet, unclear is which product format will have the most success in driving readerships and revenues. As the first mover, Orange's trial will be monitored carefully by media owners and advertisers alike.
How the Read & Go e-newspaper works:
- Orange will run trials of Read & Go using about 50 testers, who will have unlimited access for two-months.
- The service uses integrated e-paper technology rather than the back-lighting of traditional LCD screens, giving it a high level of contrast that delivers a level of reading comfort close to that of paper.
- Read & Go is the first press reader to offer wi-fi as well as connection to the 3G network, with mobile content refreshed every hour from 6am to midnight.
- The service has a storage capacity of 1Gb - the equivalent of more than 200 newspapers - and contains an e-library of about 30 books including literature, strip cartoons, children's books and non-fiction publications.
- Subject to a successful trial, Orange plans to launch the product on an international basis.