Electronic readers may have provided a rare bright spot for book publishers and even the newspaper industry, but for magazines it is not so black and white.

“[They are] really optimised for books, and it works well for newspapers,” says Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading division. “When you get into Vogue, People, so many magazines, the picture is worth a thousand words. It’s not the perfect experience yet because [they do not] have colour.”

Magazines typically rely to a far greater degree on the expressive power of colour, with E-Ink, the technology used by Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s Reader and most of the others on the market, at the moment only offering black and white.

Colour might come next year, hardware executives say, perhaps as soon as Apple’s Tablet, which could be announced as early as next month and released sometime next year.

Meanwhile, magazine executives are excited about what they can do on regular PCs and smartphones, and are in talks with large technology groups to realise their potential.

Since last month, a free Kindle application available to home computer users has let buyers of Amazon e-Books read in colour. Magazines will follow once publishers come to terms with Amazon on pricing.

Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, has been experimenting with optimising electronic versions of high-profile magazines for its TouchSmart device.

The touch-sensitive flat panels are typically aimed at kitchens or living rooms, where consumers might play music or show off pictures or videos rather than try to write an essay, letter or e-mail. HP cooked up an interactive map with Time magazine that accompanied the magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people.

US News did something similar with its bestselling annual issue on colleges, allowing readers to filter the list by criteria or zoom in for photos and video.

“We are in discussions with most publications on how to use the same method of communications,” says Satjiv Chahil, senior vice-president of HP’s personal computing division.

A key partner is Adobe, best known for its Acrobat reader for displaying documents and for Flash animation. It plans to put digitised magazines on a newer Adobe format, called AIR, that runs on many types of machines – including HP computers and Apple Macs, but not the iPhone.

Condé Nast said last month it was also working with Adobe to put out an AIR version of Wired, the technology magazine. It is also selling a $2.99 version of GQ for the iPhone, complete with colour videos, that will count with advertisers as paid circulation. Other titles are expected to follow in both cases.

Even more radical, if thus far less celebrated, is HP’s plan to print magazines on demand. Initially, the company’s MagCloud service was aimed at generating added colour printing revenue, at 20 cents a page, by allowing vanity publishers an economical way to sell just a few copies of their pet magazine projects.

But established magazines are starting to see the potential as well. Life magazine, for example, offered reprints of its special Woodstock issue. The Atlantic, a well-regarded US political and cultural magazine, offered a retrospective on “brave thinkers” from its archive of 151 years.

“Traditional publishers have huge advantages. They have archives, experience, design, markets, audiences, and brand,” explains Andrew Bolwell, HP’s director of new business initiatives. “This allows them to slice and dice their content.”

The goldmine will come, HP says, with personalisation: if Sports Illustrated offers a magazine, based on existing content, just for fans of a single team, an iPhone app could include a button to get a printed version in the mail.

“We’re talking about that with mainstream content companies,” Mr Bolwell says. “It could be any topic, no matter how thin the interest. You don’t reach an audience of millions – but that’s not the point.”

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