Hearst's Skiff plans e-reading service around content

The Hearst publishing company today unveiled its long-awaited e-reader plan, describing an "e-reading service platform" coming next year that will distribute content from multiple publishers to a variety of wireless mobile devices.

The service is being built by Skiff, a startup formerly named FirstPaper that was incubated by the U.S. media company. Unlike other e-reader platforms, it will focus on newspaper and magazine content rather than e-books and plain text, Skiff said in a press release.

The company will optimize that content for mobile platforms in a way that allows publishers to distinguish their products through design to attract readers and advertisers. Skiff said it will also help publishers sell advertising and maintain subscriber relationships.

Sprint Nextel will deliver the content wirelessly over its 3G (third-generation) mobile network under a multiyear agreement with Skiff. Rather than focusing on a single device, Skiff formed a partnership with chip maker Marvell to build a "system on a chip" for its service and is working with consumer electronics manufacturers to foster development of different devices that carry its service, store and software. They will include multipurpose devices such as smartphones and netbooks. The first of those devices will be unveiled soon, Skiff said.

Devices that carry the Skiff service will be sold initially at Sprint retail stores and on the carrier's Web site, with other channels to be announced next year.

Newspaper and magazine publishers have been struggling to find the right business models to make up for precipitous drops in readership and ad sales for print periodicals. Hearst, one of the largest U.S. publishers of newspapers and magazines, as well as broadcasting and digital media properties, appears to be placing a big bet on portable electronic devices as the new platform for reaching readers profitably.

By signing up Sprint as its wireless delivery partner, Hearst may help to bring the struggling third-place carrier back into the e-reader game. Sprint was Amazon.com's original partner on the Kindle, delivering books and periodicals to the devices through an innovative system in which the cost of connectivity was built into the price of the content. But after Amazon rolled out its Kindle for the international market, it picked AT&T to perform the same role. That carrier's network is built on the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) family of standards, which is more widely used around the world than is the CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) system Sprint uses. Sprint still powers older Kindles and the large-format, U.S.-only Kindle DX.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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