I had dinner last night with an old friend who’s in town for a few days on a business visit. Much of our conversation centered on social media, technology and the results of some of the developments we’re likely to be seeing in the next few years in areas such as reading, consuming and interacting with news and information.

That part of our conversation wasn’t so much about the obvious things like newspapers and other dead-trees media (which we did discuss: we thought the interesting newspaper experiment in Belgium is clearly a sign of what’s coming in that area). It was more to do with fundamental things like product manuals.

That may not be a particularly sexy topic yet if you think about it, manufacturers around the world spend small fortunes on producing printed materials (booklets, leaflets, etc) to inform you about the product you’d just purchased, how to install and/or use it, etc. In much of Europe, those printed materials are often in multiple languages. For instance, the Sony TV I bought a few years ago came with six thick booklets, all saying the same things in six different languages. Even a humble kettle I bought last year had a multi-lingual booklet. (No jokes here about those wonderful product manuals in English that look like they’ve got to that final lingual format from the original text in Mandarin Chinese via Hungarian after a rinse through a regional Latin American Spanish dialect.)

While my friend believes the need for such printed material will remain so for many years to come, my view is that in areas such as consumer products and computer hardware/software in particular, the clear trend is to do away with printed material altogether and publish such material only online.

We already have the situation where you buy your product, open the box and find a slim little flyer or single sheet with a brief text and a direction to an online place for more info. When you go there, you encounter the ubiquitous PDF version of the manual that the manufacturer doesn’t print any more.

That’s where we are today. Where we need to get to is when you can interact with the content you go to online. And by that I mean both you as the human being interacting as well as the product interacting automatically.

De Tijd newspaper of Antwerp, Belgium, will soon become the world’s first newspaper to publish a digital version on ‘electronic paper’ which is automatically updated during the day.

From a report in Tech M&C:

[…] Instead of buying your daily paper, from April 2006, 200 subscribers will be able to start the day by connecting a portable electronic device supplied by De Tijd to the internet and start downloading their daily paper. Updates will be automatic during the day, if subscribers have access to wireless technology.

The electronic newspaper costs an astronomical 400 euros – but those who sign up for the experiment are not being charged. The assumption is, however, that costs will come down when the electronic daily goes into mass production.

‘If the testing period proves successful, we will draw up a business model based on the analysis,’ the project manager Peter Bruynseels told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Media experts at Belgian universities will then analyze readers’ evaluations.

The Belgian experiment reflects the newspaper’s fight for survival in a world of increasing competition, declining circulation and rising newsprint costs.

The article say that Dutch company iRex Technologies, a Philips spinoff, is building the portable reading device which uses display technology developed by E Ink Corporation, an MIT spinoff.