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Sprint and Hearst launch Skiff ereader

But competition means it won't be plain sailing

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If touchscreen phones were the new buzz gadgets of 2008, this has certainly been the year of the ereader. This is especially true in the US, where operators have spotted the opportunity to adopt the integrated device/content model beloved of Apple, and build a new revenue stream.

The latest contender comes from a partnership between Sprint Nextel and publishing giant Hearst, which will offer a service called Skiff, geared mainly to newspapers and magazines. Sprint made much capital, and some revenue, from its deal to power the veteran of the ebook services, Amazon Kindle. But the retail giant recently transferred its affections to AT&T to support its expansion into international markets, which required a GSM roaming partner.

The other best established e-reader is the Daily Edition, the latest in Sony's range, which also runs on AT&T's network. This will soon be joined by two forthcoming new entrants. One is from Plastic Logic, to be branded by the carrier itself, with the other being Barnes & Noble's Android-based Nook - though delays appear to mean this will miss the important holiday buying slot. Verizon Wireless also recently partnered with Philips spin-off iRex to power a new wireless ereader.

The Skiff venture promises to have strong layouts and graphics so that newspapers and magazines - delivered over the air straight from Hearst's new digital publishing service - appear more like their paper equivalents. This positions Skiff against the new, large-screen Kindle DX from Amazon, which supports a broadening range of US and international publications, including the New York Times and the London Times.

Further competition will come from the initiative which Rupert Murdoch has promised for Hearst arch-rival News Corp, which would involve a branded, large-size ereader optimized for newspaper delivery and probably confined to News Corp and other 'friendly' products. The battle to find a profit model in newspaper publishing, and conserve the value of the content, reached new heights recently when Murdoch accused Google of 'stealing' his firm's paid-for online content, and threatening to work only with Microsoft search service Bing.

Sprint will take a more visible role in Skiff, it seems, than it did in Kindle, where it merely provided the embedded wireless connection in return for a usage fee from Amazon. By contrast, it will sell Skiff readers from its stores and web sites, and additional distribution channels will be announced next year.

Skiff is wholly owned by Hearst and said its current priority is to work with major electronics manufacturers to "integrate Skiff's service, digital store and specialized client software into a range of innovative devices". In other words, again like Amazon, it will offer its software on PCs, phones and other products, alongside the more optimized experience of the dedicated ereader.

Its major challenge, along with making itself visible in a sea of US e-readers, will be to replicate the extremely simple and integrated experience of the Kindle device/store, which could teach iTunes a few lessons. ®

Copyright © 2009, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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