Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In the year 2000... !

One of my favorite movies from the last five years was Minority Report. For one thing, I enjoyed the twist on the "whodunit" type of story that puts the main character in the position of figuring out how he's going to kill someone in the near future. (Okay, it gets a little hinky toward the end, with certain events occurring because the story needs them to, plausibility be damned.) But what really struck me as cool was the futuristic vision of the movie, full of gadgets and innovations that seemed like they had a chance of seeing reality in our lifetime.

We probably won't get to see cars driving horizontally on magnetic tracks any time soon. And I hope we never get personal advertising fed to us. But there was something else in the movie that we could see within the next 10 years. If you saw the movie, do you remember the scene on a subway where a passenger is reading a newspaper that suddenly changes headlines to indicate breaking news? I don't know about you, but I wanted one of those.

Over the past week, Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post has been writing about the future of newspapers. Circulation is shrinking, advertising has hit a plateau, and newsprint is getting really expensive. So what can newspapers do to stay alive, besides lay off employees or just run internet versions of their publications? The Wall Street Journal is reducing the size of its print editions. The New York Times is using lighter newsprint.

What else can be done? How about that newspaper from Minority Report? In another piece he wrote, Ahrens interviewed Russ Wilcox, chief executive of E Ink Corp, which is working on a "paperless" newspaper. Big newspaper conglomerates such as Gannett Co. and Hearst Communications have already invested in the project. Here's an explanation:

His business creates paper-thin video screens that, in simplest terms, are filled with tiny black and white chips. When an electrical current with data is sent through the screen, the chips become charged and arrange themselves into a pattern of black type on a white background. When readers want to flip to the next page, the particles scramble and rearrange.

You could fold it up and stick it under your arm. Or roll it up and put it in your bag. And once the technology become streamlined, color, sound, and video could eventually be added to the package.

Sweet. Now I have some ammunition for anyone who asks me why I bother buying a newspaper when I could just read it online. Why? Because I like taking newspapers with me, to coffee shops, on the bus, and, of course, to the bathroom. I like being able to pull a newspaper out and read it whenever I want. Wireless technology shot down my "I can't bring my computer to the coffee shop" argument. Maybe it neutralized the bathroom argument too, but I just can't cross that line yet. I'm not going to bring my laptop with me to the toilet. (Have I considered it? Of course I have.)

But this, this could change everything for me. And I wouldn't get that newsprint all over my fingers.

♦ Ahrens and Wilcox also had a chat at washingtonpost.com last week. Here's the link, if you're interested in checking it out.