Electronic Paper — Paper Route
THERE WAS a time not long ago (2005) when scarcely a week would go by without there being news of some new development in the growing “electronic paper” market. Perhaps “market” is the wrong word to use, as almost all the news that came out comprised solely of technology demonstrations, announcements of strategic partnerships, and prototype media and devices—none of which were available commercially. As a result, there was no real “market” to speak of.
Still, the news was always exciting and sent the gadgets and gizmos crowd swooning with anticipation. And then, silence. What happened?
It’s possible to interpret all the early “pre-news” as a cunning plan to prime (or create) the market for electronic paper. What happened during the “quiet time” was that companies ceased all the blue- skying and got down to the business of actually introducing for-sale products. The latter half of 2006, consequently, saw the release of the first generation of e-paper-based devices. More introductions are said to be on the way.
Focus on Devices
This article—drawn from two recent PrintForecast.com special reports, “E Is for E-Paper: An Electronic Paper Primer for the Graphic Communications Industry” and “E-Paper Technologies and Opportunities in Publishing, Communications and the Graphic Arts”—will examine the two major product releases (the iRex iLiad and the Sony Reader) and then look at some of the other potential devices waiting in the wings.
The first e-paper-based device to hit the market (in Europe) was the iRex iLiad. iRex Technologies is a Philips spin-off whose iLiad is a 1,024x768-pixel e-book and e-newspaper reader based on an electronic ink technology developed by E Ink (see sidebar). The iLiad has a total storage capacity of 64MB of RAM, plus 128MB of internal flash memory for storing content—enough, says the company, to hold one month of newspapers, 30 books and many other documents. The iLiad weighs about three-fourths of a pound and features a rigid, Philips-based 8.1˝ display.
Perhaps the most notable features of the iLiad are its long rechargeable battery life (up to two weeks) and the support of numerous content formats, including PDF, XHTML, TXT, and MP3. Even more impressive are its connectivity options: USB, Ethernet and Wi-Fi. At present, iRex is working with publishers in Sweden, the U.K. and the United States. The iRex can also be “written on” using a stylus, thus allowing it to serve as a kind of tablet PC.
Field tests on user acceptance have been under way since early last year. In Belgium, for example, the Flemish-language financial daily De Tijd distributed iRex iLiad e-book readers in April 2006 to 200 subscribers as part of a test to determine the effectiveness of the product with consumers. The test lasted for three months, and helped iRex make any necessary modifications before it is mass produced, as well as to help set a retail price for the product. The iLiad officially hit the market last summer, boasting a cost of 649 Euros (or US$811, as of this writing).
In April 2004, Sony, E Ink, Royal Philips Electronics and Toppan Printing (a supplier of color filters for flat-panel displays) conjointly launched in Japan a first- generation e-paper display in Sony’s black-and-white e-book reader, the EBR-1000 LIBRIé. This device, like the iLiad, is also based on E Ink’s technology.
A Page Turner
Users of the LIBRIé can download and store 500 books of about 250 pages each to the reader. The quality of the display is 170 pixels per inch (ppi) and, like other E Ink applications, is a reflective (not backlit) display, which boasts a readability that is perhaps the closest to ink-on-paper that e-book developers have ever come. It has been estimated that readers can read up to 10,000 pages before the e-book reader’s four AAA batteries need replacing.
In January 2006, Sony unveiled the second generation LIBRIé e-book reader, renamed the PRS-500 Reader, or just the Sony Reader. The new Reader is about the size of a paperback, is just over half an inch (14mm) thick at its widest, weighs just slightly more than half a pound (250 grams), and supports BBeB, PDF, JPEG and MP3 file formats.
The Reader accepts external media such as Sony’s Memory Stick or SD flash memory cards via USB. Internally, its 64MB capacity can store about 80 books, and its rechargeable battery will last for 7,500 pages of viewing. In early April 2006, it was announced that the new Sony Reader would be sold in Borders Book and Music stores, in addition to Sony Style retail locations.
In October, the Sony Reader officially started shipping—and visitors to the Sony Style e-store were told that the device was “sold out,” but that supplies would be replenished in time for the holidays (as of December 5, the Reader was no longer “sold out”). Meanwhile, the partnership with Borders resulted in Sony Reader demonstration kiosks being set up in Borders retail stores, where users could evaluate the device and, should they be suitably impressed, even buy one. (The Sony Reader goes for $350.)
The Sony Reader got a good deal of press upon its release, and garnered generally positive reviews. Said The Wall Street Journal: “The contrast between the black text and the light-gray background isn’t as good as on a paper book, but it’s easy on the eyes and makes the Reader usable even in bright sunlight.”
Business Week liked the device itself, but had problems with Sony’s e-bookstore: “Even though the Reader has its flaws, it’s a vast improvement over various other e-book designs rolled out in the past decade. I can’t say the same for the clunky software that manages book purchases and Reader downloads on a Windows PC, or for Sony’s attempt at an online bookstore, which is reminiscent of its clueless efforts to sell music online.”
Other devices are on the horizon and, depending on how the iLiad and the Sony Reader fare, will likely start hitting the market before long.
The U.K.’s Plastic Logic has announced a variety of e-paper developments over the past few years. The company is taking the lead in a developing—in the U.K., at least—thin, flexible, low-cost plastic electronics via pre-existing manufacturing (that is to say, printing) equipment. Plastic Logic also is developing flexible e-paper displays that could be used as labels or as RFID devices.
Plastic Logic says that it had created the world’s largest flexible active-matrix OLED display. The 10˝, 0.4-mm-thick display—also based on E Ink’s technology—has a resolution of 100 ppi and four levels of grayscale. In October 2006, at Frankfurt’s Plastic Electronic 2006 show, Plastic Logic demonstrated a 150-ppi SVGA display.
According to the company, Plastic Logic is developing relationships and partnerships to work the displays into actual products.
In 2005’s original spate of proof of concept announcements, Polymer Vision, a spin-off of Philips Research, demonstrated prototypes of the Concept Readius roll-able display. The monochrome, 320x240-pixel, 5˝ Readius is the first prototype of a functional electronic document reader whose display can be unrolled to a size larger than the device itself. The Readius uses E Ink’s bi-stable electrophoretic display, and is based on Polymer Vision’s own rollable display design. The company is working on a 7˝ model, which it believes will be the optimal size for the mainstream market.
Polymer Vision admitted that it hadn’t intended to commercialize the Readius itself, but was instead eager to demonstrate the capabilities of its rollable display technology and then let others develop the next- generation mobile devices and other products that incorporate it. How-ever, 2005 was the last time we heard of the Readius or Polymer Vision.
Initially, Amazon.com’s failure to carry the Sony Reader was somewhat conspicuous...until we learned that they have their own e-book reader poised for release. The Amazon Kindle E-Book Reader weighs 10.5 ounces, has a 6˝, 800x600-pixel display, 256MB of RAM, a keyboard, scroll wheel, mini USB port, SD slot and a headphone jack.
It’s entirely possible that e-paper device manufacturers are barking up the wrong tree with e-books. According to the latest data from the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales for the month of September were $2.4 million, up 1.3 percent from August (and up 21.2 percent over September 2005).
Print Still is Preferred
This is not a huge niche (for comparison’s sake, audio book sales in the same month were $16.4 million, and adult hardcover sales were $192.5 million). And while electronic books have their adherents and proponents, there was a reason the technology didn’t take off in the late 1990s: people who tend to buy books tend to really like printed books, and find electronic alternatives anathema. Will this change on a generational timeframe? Maybe, or we could see a generational shift away from book-length documents. But that’s another discussion for another time.
Regardless, our outlook for electronic paper as a display technology is quite bullish, but we feel that while the first-generation devices are impressive, the real application for electronic paper will be incorporated into next-generation PDAs, cellphones, MP3 players—or whatever omnipurpose device evolves out of the merging of all of these disparate gadgets. The combination of a flexible or rollable e-paper display with a device that can access the wireless Internet and access updated content is a killer app waiting to happen.
Technological hurdles abound, of course. As the Web becomes more rich media-based, it is several strides ahead of the capabilities of the current crop of e-paper technologies. PI
About the Authors
PrintForecast.com is a global information service that provides senior-level executives reliable, easy to access printing, publishing and content-creation market forecasts. Dr. Joe Webb, well-known industry forecaster, consultant and commentator, is one of the firm’s three founding partners. Much of this article was excerpted from the recent PrintForecast.com reports, “E Is for E-Paper: An Electronic Paper Primer for the Graphic Communications Industry” and “E-Paper Technologies and Opportunities in Publishing, Communications and the Graphic Arts.” For more information, visit www.printforecast.com.
E Ink’s E-Paper Technology
Most of the currently available (and forthcoming) electronic readers use some variety of the electronic ink technology developed by the Cambridge, MA-based E Ink. E Ink’s “electronic ink” is an electrophoretic process; that is, it comprises millions of microcapsules, each about the diameter of a human hair. Each capsule contains a clear fluid suspended in which are tiny black-and-white particles. The black and the white particles each carry opposite electrical charges.
When an electrical field is applied, the particles move vertically within the capsules: a negative electric charge moves the white particles to the top of the capsules—where they’re visible to the viewer—while a positive charge moves the black particles to the bottom of the capsules—where they’re not visible. Reversing the polarity reverses the visibility of the white and back particles. Black particles form image areas, while white areas form non-image areas.
E Ink technology is said to reduce energy consumption, to an amount that is 100 times lower than a standard LCD, and can be processed into a film for integration into electronic displays within cameras, ATMs, kiosks, GPS devices, smartphones, PDAs, wireless tablets, signage—and many, many other applications. It is also bi-stable; that is, it only requires power to change the display not to project the display, which is what contributes to its long battery life.
E Ink technology has been seized on by numerous other manufacturers and implemented in their flexible display offerings. E Ink is presently working on adding color to its flexible screen offerings. However, high-quality video and audio capabilities are most likely a decade away from commercial availability. Given that the E Ink technology is a mechanical process, the rapidly changing display required by video is beyond its abilities. For now.