Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Hearst Is Ready to Show Off Its Skiff E-Reader Platform, but It Doesn’t Want to Tell Quite Yet. Is Anyone Ready to Buy?

skiff

Here’s another e-reader clamoring for attention in a Consumer Electronics Show full of e-readers: The Skiff Reader, produced by a company funded by publisher Hearst Corp. and supported by Sprint.

I’d go into detail about the device that Skiff is producing, but the company isn’t providing many crucial details.

Skiff won’t tell us when the Skiff Reader will go on sale, for instance, or how much it will cost. Or which “major consumer electronics company” is actually manufacturing it. And while Skiff is happy to show the device off to the press, it won’t let us photograph it.

So trust me on this when I tell you that the Skiff Reader appears to look and work a lot like Amazon’s Kindle DX. At least from the brief glimpse I got.

But in many ways, the Skiff Reader’s specs are beside the point, because the real point of its parent company isn’t to produce e-reader devices at all.

Skiff will indeed sell a gadget, whose price will likely vary depending on how many publications consumers agree to subscribe to. And Sprint (S) will provide users with a built-in wireless connection to download periodicals.

But the driving idea behind the company is to create a platform for producing, distributing and selling magazines and newspapers on a variety of devices.

In theory, at least, the publications Hearst distributes and sells should work on any gadget, whether it’s a smartphone like Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone, one of the many tablets coming on the market, or even a rival e-reader like Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle. And Hearst doesn’t want to sell just its magazines and newspapers, but those of any publisher.

Does this sound familiar? It should because this is also the supposed goal of the “Hulu for magazines” consortium that Time Warner’s (TWX) Time Inc. created last year. And Hearst is a member of that joint venture.

So either Hearst’s company is going to compete with the platform the JV is supposed to create or Skiff will become part of the JV. Ask the various publishers in the group what they think will become of Skiff and you’ll get confusing responses, all of which sound like a muttered version of “I don’t know.”

That said, it seems likely that someone–perhaps the consortium, or perhaps a consortium member like News Corp. (NWS), which also owns this Web site–will end up buying at least a piece of Skiff.

At a minimum, Hearst officials are fairly candid about being interested in finding someone else to invest in the company; I’ve been told the publisher has plowed some $35 million into it to date.

I asked Skiff president Gilbert Fuchsberg about that prospect, and he politely demurred, as he did when I asked him about other Skiff specifics. But he was polite and good-natured about it, as you can see in this video:


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work