Time spent reading digital screens almost equals print

10 May 2011

For the first time the length of time people spend reading on a digital screen is now almost equal to the time spent reading printed paper text, a recent survey by Gartner, Inc suggests.

The huge majority of tablet and iPad users say they find screen reading either easier than reading printed text (52pc) or about the same (42pc). However, 47pc of laptop users find screen reading harder than reading printed text, and 33pc reported it was about the same.

In the fourth quarter of 2010, Gartner surveyed 1,569 consumers in six countries – the US, UK, China, Japan, Italy and India – about their subjective experiences of reading on screen versus reading printed paper text. The survey included a mixture of online, face-to-face and computer-aided telephony interviews.

“There are concerns that digital media will cannibalise print media, based on the general decline in newspaper sales and takeup of online news services in many parts of the world, but the evidence from our research is that print and online are not generally regarded as direct substitutes by consumers,” said Nick Ingelbrecht, research director at Gartner.

“Something more complicated than a straightforward substitution of print to digital media is taking place.”

“Trying to sell the same basic content to the same consumer in different formats risks alienating the consumer, who will balk at paying twice for the same thing,” said Ingelbrecht.

“The survey results confirm that multichannel content distribution is essential for reaching consumers who are consuming near equal amounts of print and digital text. Content, publishing and media organisations should market the synergies of multichannel products to consumers, stressing the benefits of having both print and online access, rather than selling competing stand-alone products.”

Screen reading is now virtually on a par with print

According to the Gartner survey, across the demographics, screen reading is now virtually on a par with print consumption.

Survey data showed that younger age groups are happier to read on screen than older respondents, with the 40-to-54-years cohort least satisfied with their screen-reading experiences. In terms of gender, men typically reported screen reading easier than women, but both sexes said screen reading was generally the same or harder than reading printed text.

Gartner analysts said the shift from paper to screen-based consumption is not a straight substitution of one medium for another. There is no single paradigm for screen reading, because reading a short piece of text on a mobile phone screen is a different proposition from the reading experience with an e-reader.

“Consumers’ reading habits are shaped and reinforced by the types of reading they do and don’t do. Technology and service providers’ product road maps, therefore, need to address changes in consumption patterns, as well as the ergonomic and cognitive factors associated with the changes in reading habits,” Ingelbrecht said.

“This means improving media tablets and screen readers to become more competitive with paper in terms of weight, form factor, screen resolution, waterproofing, ruggedness, easy highlighting and note taking. This will enable consumers to take and use their devices at the beach, in the bath or out into the sun where they take their paper books, newspapers and magazines.”

The survey research indicated that around 40pc of respondents had no experience of using e-readers, such the Amazon Kindle, Amazon Kindle DX and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and this was even higher in India (75pc), the UK (56pc) and the US (57pc).

Urban Chinese respondents had the highest familiarity with e-readers and also had the highest number reporting that e-readers were easier to read. This reflects the relatively high income and education level of the sample in China.

For content providers, the interactive capabilities of screen readers should ultimately enable the delivery of a richer user experience – for example, illustrating a book on music with musical excerpts (rights permitting).

For communications service providers, for products such as the Kindle and iPad that use wireless or internet connections for content delivery, there is an opportunity for customer acquisition and retention through product subsidy and cross-selling/upselling of data plans.

“Given the relative immaturity of the screen reader market and the volatility of the different operating systems, consumers will face increasing challenges storing and transferring their book purchases and other digital content,” Ingelbrecht said.

“This presents a good business opportunity for technology and service providers, as well as publishers and online retailers, offering localised storage solutions or online (cloud-based) digital storage services.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years