The world's first entirely electronic newspapers will go on trial in France next week, offering not only morning headlines but automatic updates every hour throughout the day.
The touch-screen, A5-sized, device uses "ePaper" and "eInk" technology to make it as much like reading normal newsprint as possible. It includes both WiFi and a 3G mobile chip so news can be refreshed every hour during the day, even on the move.
There are already electronic books on the market, notably Amazon's Kindle, which was launched last year but is yet to make it to non-US markets. But Orange's Read&Go is specifically designed to give the same impression as reading a traditional newspaper, including using display technology that paralyses bubbles of ink and is not, like a laptop screen, unreadable in bright sunlight.
The pilot scheme, in partnership with five French newspapers including Le Monde and Les Echos, will run until mid-summer, and could pave the way for a commercial service within a few years.
A key testing ground is the technology itself – including how it stands up to rolling updates from five major content providers and how easy the device is to use.
Orange has also already launched a worldwide call for next-generation flexible electronic paper technology with a view to replacing the rigid tablet being used in the pilot scheme with a more user-friendly format that could potentially be rolled up when not in use.
There are also major questions for the newspapers to answer about how the content is organised compared with a printed paper, and how stories are best laid out or divided according to what works in a smaller, digital format. But Orange insists the device will replicate the printed paper, rather than simply providing mobile access to the paper's online news website.
The business model for a commercial scheme is also under review – including the possibility of a subscription to one or more specific newspapers, or a pay-on-demand account.
But it is the advertising potential that is likely to grab media groups' attention. Printed newspaper circulations have been hard hit by the rise of internet news sites, with ad revenues falling in parallel. And despite considerable investment in websites allied to the national papers, the business model is yet to show a profit. Not only could a successful electronic newspaper device reinvigorate the sector's revenues but it could also open the door to more innovative advertising including interactive or location-sensitive marketing – some of which will be tested by Orange as part of this summer's trial.
Nicki Lyons, an analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said: "Anything that makes content easier to consume will have a significant impact. Newspapers have been quite innovative with the development of content online – they are streets ahead of television companies. There will be a tipping point where that investment starts to pay off."