Metropolitan newspapers in Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other places, seeking to survive, are embracing tablet editions to the point of marketing their own e-readers, most of which seem to be Android tablets. It’s a noble effort to avoid extinction but I’m here to tell you it won’t work. Private label tablet computers are a bad idea for newspapers.

The reason I can make this statement with such conviction is because I once tried to do it myself. The year was 1993 when I convinced International Data Group (my employer at the time) to create an electronic magazine about Microsoft. We called it Microsquish.

The magazine was intended to be distributed weekly in PDF format over this new thing they called the Internet. At more than a megabyte in size Microsquish was bigger than most ISPs at the time would allow as an e-mail attachment, so we had to find another way to send it. Gopher and Fetch were considered.  It was possible we could have done it as a downloadable web document in HTML, but that standard was only two years old and unproven while PDF was working fine. Remember this was pre-Netscape.

We soon had a magazine and a document format but no means of distributing a file so big to so many people (we were hoping for 100,000 subscribers).  Understand we were proposing to somehow deliver over the Internet more than 100 gigabytes per week, a task that at that time could easily have taken more than a week just to accomplish, killing the whole idea of a weekly publication.

So I invented a way to do it. My delivery system, called Pronto, may have been the first Content Distribution Network. It was a Java application intended to run on hundreds or thousands of servers all over the world. We built it and it worked. Pronto could still teach the world a thing or two about reliable delivery, and it scaled beautifully.

But how would people read our magazine? Like any PDF it could be read on computer screens, but to take advantage of PostScript’s beautiful typography and vector graphics it made sense, too, to allow people to print their copy of Microsquish.  Better still, why not avoid the PC entirely and build a Pronto client into a cheap color printer?  That way the paper could be printed overnight and be ready for reading at breakfast.

I visited Canon in Japan and asked what it would cost for a custom inkjet printer with a built-in Pronto client if IDG took charge of actually distributing the printers to Microsquish subscribers.  Canon said the cost of such printers would be… free!  But in order to close the deal I would have to find publications beyond just Microsquish, they said.  I had inadvertently built a publishing system that should be leveraged, they explained. Do a co-marketing deal with the New York Times to gain some real volume, Canon suggested. They wanted to build a lot of free printers.

Well the Times wasn’t interested, nobody was.  As usual, I was 18 years or more ahead of my time, so Microsquish was never born.

The reason Canon was willing to provide the printers for free was so they could make their profit on ink cartridges, which is where the money has always been for those low-end printers. And a Pronto printer was especially attractive to Canon both because of its high volume and because the Pronto client could be adapted to automatically reorder ink as needed.  Cool, eh?

Now jump to today.  The wan and limping Chicago Tribune wants to make its own Android tablet reader, which it thinks it might be able to give away or sell to subscribers for a small price. I don’t think the economics of such a device work without consumables. They need the equivalent of ink cartridge sales for the numbers to work out, but tablets don’t use ink.

These newspapers like to think they’ll get a sweetheart deal from the big cell companies but they won’t.  Everyone who would read an electronic edition already has a mobile phone company.

Maybe the Trib and those other papers can white label a $199 or $299 Android tablet, but I doubt that will generate enough sustainable subscriptions to support an electronic edition. There’s just too much work for too little reward.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be wrong about this.  I looked seriously into doing my own Android tablet but it made no business sense. Not enough has really changed since 1993. We’re still ahead of our time.

Which is why I’ve decided to do my own Android phone, instead, rather than a tablet. Now that makes more sense.