Electronic Paper–Finally a Commercial Proposition?

I’ve written several posts about the emergence of electronic ink / electronic paper technologies. In a nutshell, these technologies allow information to be displayed on a medium which is (a) thin, (b) flexible (to at least some degree), (c) readable in bright sunlight, and (d) power-efficient (power is used only when changing the page, not for display per se.) As I wrote in 2004:

“These technologies could have major implications for the display of long text documents, eliminating the current undesirable alternatives of reading it on the screen or going to the trouble of printing it out, and I think they could have tremendous influence on the future of the media industry (especially periodicals.)”

A couple of years ago, Sony launched the Sony eReader, a 9-ounce product that can store about 80 average-sized books. Downloading is via an i-Tunes-like interface from a PC. My perception is that eReader has not been a runaway success, although it has developed some niche markets–it seems to be popular, for instance, among fans of romance novels, especially really hot romance novels.

Today, Amazon launched a product called Kindle, which has some interesting attributes:

1)It includes a wireless connection–and the connection is EVDO (cellular) so you don’t have to hunt for a hotspot.

2)It is marketed as a vehicle for access to periodicals, not just books. Those mentioned in the announcement include NYT, Washington Post, Le Monde, Fortune, and the Atlantic Monthly.

3)Quite a few blogs are available. Instapundit and Michelle Malkin, for instance, are each available for a subscription fee of $1.99/month.

4)You can send it your own documents for convenient reading: irritatingly, however, the formats supported do not include PDF.

5)88,000 books are now available, and downloading a book is said to take only about a minute.

The big questions, it seems to me, are these: Will people who already carry a laptop/notebook with them everywhere (in addition to a cell phone and possibly an iPod) be willing to tote around yet another electroic device–even one that weighs only 10 ounces? And will conventional screen technology improve to the point of making the reading of long documents a less-frustrating experience, eliminating the need for a dedicated reading device?

Disclosures: I’m a shareholder in Royal Phillips Electronics, a supplier of electronic ink technologies, and currently have a small short position against Sony.

Trademarks acknowledged.

9 thoughts on “Electronic Paper–Finally a Commercial Proposition?”

  1. It is interesting technology. The $400 price tag seems steep, and you would think that Amazon would try to lower the price point just to get these into people’s hands.

    I only read my local paper, and glossing over the dead tree takes only a few minutes for me. The rest of my news comes from the web already.

    I am an avid reader and fear that I may never get through the stack of books I already have in my basement. If I ever do, I may be interested in this technology as I read in bed a lot and at times if I am reading a large tome it fatigues my arms. It will take a while for Amazon to have many of the older titles available on this medium, I would assume. That is fine with me since I also assume that the initial price of the machine will go down too.

  2. Having used my spouses iPhone to surf the net, I don’t believe that independent devices for ebooks will ever take off. The high quality of the screen means one can read quite easily even though the text appears at first far to small. Upgrading the iPhone just slightly, perhaps with a collapsable second screen, would make it a near perfect ebook.

    I think we will see the evolution of the “information” appliance i.e. a single device that serves all informational needs. We have to date used different devices to receive information like television, radio, movies, telephone, books, CD’s, computers etc because the fundamental technology of distributing and displaying the information differed for each technology and it was very difficult to

    Now our informational devices are increasingly just computers in different forms all getting their information from the same packet switched network and displaying it on the same type of screens and speakers.

    I suspect the final device will be pocket computer that communicates wirelessly with various small, physically disconnected interface devices. We will choose the interface based on the environment and the type of information we want to create or consume.

  3. Aside from convenience issue, how much this folly will actually cost? Initial input – $400, then you have to pay for every book you download – yes, a tenner is not much, but the whole purpose of this thing is reading books while on the road, right? So every 4-to-5 days, while on the bus (some – on a plane) you have to to shell out $10. Plus charges for blogs (each- separately), plus charges for papers (again, separately) – it’s all piling up for way over $30 max for a regular monthly internet connection, with unlimited free reading.

    Also, cellphones don’t work underground; this thing will not work in the subway!

  4. I will be one of the first buyers of electronic paper when it *really* comes out. This device does nothing for me, however. I want electronic paper that folds, bends, and will fit in a sleeve of my suitcase or rolled up in my back pocket. I expect the first iteration to cost $300-$600 and don’t have a problem with the price tag just as I had no problem paying that amount for an iPhone, which is the latest breakthrough until Google’s GPhone comes out.

  5. The Kindle is an interesting proposition by Amazon, and an interesting one for the e-paper display format. Dedicated e-book readers have been marketed in a number of arenas for a while with limited success, based namely on their limited application and their high price tag. The Kindle adds the wireless capabilities to a niche market, which, although admirable, is still limited. However, its a usefuill application for the e-paper format which will continue to struggle to find its consumer niche until it solves its current limitations, namely black and white only display, and low refresh rates.

    However, LCD displays suffered from the same limitations 10-15 years ago, and now are becoming the standard in display technology, not only for computer applications, but also in the multimedia intensive applications that computers are quickly assuming. I would expect that this adolescent technology would have similar growing pains, and provided it continues to flirt with the edges of mainstream technology the way that it does, it will continue to mature and possibly even replace the backlit LCD technology with superior color rendition, readability and power consumption.

    I look forward to the next generation of e-paper technologies, which i fully expect to be the cellphone and personal assistant type applications. Replace my PDA! i dare you!

  6. The biggest problem with all the electronic books is the text available. In general you can only get fiction. So with this new Kindle you can pay ~$10 for a $4.95 paperback in electronic form. What I can not get is all my engineering texts and refrences. Having all of them in a small portable format instead of two book cases would be worth getting. That, of course, will never happen as the text book publishers make far too much money off of college students.

  7. I think it’s 10 ounces, not pounds.

    Anyway, my big question is this. Sure, you can read Michelle Malkin or Instapundit for a small fee, but because of this I’m assuming that you can’t follow the links they put up. Sometimes Instapundit is nothing but links, so that would be a problem.

  8. yes, 10 ounces..I’ll fix it.

    I had the same thought on link-following. Restrictions on the ability to follow links would seem to have a major impact on the kinds of content that fit well with the device.

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