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Books Take Electronic Turn--Alex Hamilton

December 2000
At the recent book fair in Frankfurt, Germany, it was announced that there would be a $100,000 prize for the best new e-book. Quite a tidy sum—and especially nice odds for authors, given the dearth of books published only in electronic format.

Yet, with only 80,000 viewers/readers currently in consumers' hands, e-books are currently struggling to gain acceptance. Not only are there few viewers, but the existing technologies have a long way to go to challenge printed books in terms of quality, navigation and ease of use. Screens are small and the displays, which are based on projected light, are not easy to read for any length of time. Adding to the challenge, there are several different presentation formats vying for supremacy.

So, does that mean we should write off e-books? No. Frankly, while we will look back on the first generation of e-books with the same sort of nostalgia reserved for 8-track audio tapes, they serve as an important wake-up call for the prepress arena.

However hokey the current technologies and formats, they are the forerunner of what will prove more worthy challengers to ink on paper: electronic paper and electronic ink.

There are several groups working on these technologies, including efforts at Xerox PARC and MIT's Media Lab. e-paper consists of a film-like substrate that has the ability to render pixels according to the amount of voltage applied. As currently developed, the electronic signal is applied by an external "printer" device to the e-paper film. However, it is not hard to imagine an integrated unit that is no thicker than a book and can download and display information from the Web.

Inside e-consumables
Electronic inks are conceptually similar. With this technology, the ink carrier contains capsules with dyes and pigments, which are then printed between a pair of electrodes. Depending on the charge (positive or negative), the pixels are turned on or off to render the image. One of the interesting things about electronic inks is that it can be applied to a wide variety of substrates using screen printing equipment.

These technologies are pretty far along—electronic ink has already made its public debut, while Xerox and 3M are working to develop e-paper products for general release. While both technologies are now limited to monochrome output, developers are tackling the issue of color.

With electronic paper, it is possible to have matrixes of contrasting colors to render images in color. As with e-paper, the developers are now working on developing capsules that contain red, green and blue hues to render color images.


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