What's Next for e-Readers?

E-readers are not yet commodity items, although they are selling briskly. This year's unit sales are predicted to be twice those of last year. And, in many ways, e-book technology is still in its early stages. E-book file compatibility is still being sorted out, and future versions of e-readers will offer many features not widely seen today, including color displays, video capability, ruggedness, and flexibility.

by Jenny Donelan

NO SOONER does a super-cool device find success in the marketplace than people – both those that do the buying and those that do the manufacturing – want it to be even cooler. A case in point is the e-reader, such as Amazon's Kindle or Sony's Reader. These devices are great to look at, both in terms of physical design and their easy-on-the-eye text display. They allow a person to carry more than a year's worth (as in hundreds of titles) of best-sellers, mind-enriching classical literature, or both, in a briefcase or purse. They operate for a long, long time (more than a week) on a single charge. Last, for many people at least, they have that indefinable "gotta have it" quality. During the 2009 holiday season, e-readers seem to have helped numerous individuals solve the perennial problem of what to buy for that certain someone. Amazon, which steadfastly refuses to divulge sales figures, including number of units sold, did claim that last season, Kindle became its top-selling gift of any kind, ever. On Christmas Day 2009, presumably as a result of all the Kindles found under the tree, Amazon sold more electronic books than physical ones for the first time in its history.1

The e-Reader Market

According to market-research-firm iSuppli, unit sales for e-readers should top 10 million by the end of 2010 and reach over 20 million by 2013 (see Fig. 1). Of those particular e-readers, it is hard to say which brands hold sway.

Even though one has to guess at Amazon's figures, it is widely presumed to be the market leader. In 2008, iSuppli estimated that Amazon held 40% of market share, Sony 35%, and the remainder 25% (Fig. 2).

iSuppli does not have 2009 statistics, but it may be safe to assume that the shares did not change drastically from 2008. Says Vinita Jakhanwal, principal analyst with iSuppli, "I think that market share in 2009 would have favored Amazon and increased their share slightly." She added that the "Others" portion of Fig. 2 may also have increased, as various Asian companies in the e-reader space did well last year.

 

Fig_1

Fig. 1: Between 2009 and 2010, unit sales for e-readers of all kinds are predicted to more than double, from slightly more than 5 million to about 11 million units. Source: iSuppli Corp.

Anatomy of an e-Reader

There are a number of e-reader technologies on the market, but the most widespread probably involves electrophoretic imaging film combined with an LCD backplane. Devices from Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, and many others rely on the above electronic-ink technology from E Ink Corp., the Massachusetts-based company that was bought by Prime View International (PVI) late last year. For more about what PVI is up to, see this issue's Industry News article, "Prime View International, HYDIS Technologies, and LG Display Announce Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement."

E Ink's technology consists of millions of tiny microcapsules, each containing positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. According to E Ink's literature2: "When a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the microcapsule where they become visible to the user. This makes the surface appear white at that spot. At the same time, an opposite electric field pulls the black particles to the bottom of the microcapsules where they are hidden. By reversing this process, the black particles appear at the top of the capsule, which now makes the surface appear dark at that spot." The electronic ink is incorporated into a sheet of film that is attached to a thin-film-transistor (TFT) backplane or other surface.

The resulting device produces a display that is often described as "paper-like." While "the reading experience" is not quantifiable, it is generally understood that for the average person, e-paper offers a more agreeable long-term reading experience than does, for example, a backlit LCD. E-paper can also be read outside, even in bright sunlight. Of course, such displays cannot be read in darkness without an external light source, any more than can paper itself. Sony's PRS 700BC e-reader came out in 2008 with a frontlighting option that met with mixed reviews online, and there has been on-and-off talk of some kind of built-in illumination for e-readers. But today, if you want to read your e-book in the dark, generally you employ a miniature book light, just as you would with a physical book.

Features on the Horizon

At present, users and manufacturers are focused mostly on the following features for e-readers: color, video capability, flexibility, ruggedness, size, file format, and price. Some of the above capabilities – color and especially price – will likely be the factors that convince the next round of customers who are not quite ready to buy yet.

Color

Of all the desirable new features for e-books, color is probably top of list. The first E-Ink- based color products, manufactured by the Beijing-based Hanvon (Hanwang) Technology, should go into production by the end of 2010, according to Sri Peruvemba, Vice President of Marketing for E Ink. These devices will not use colored electronic ink, but will employ RGBW filters over the monochrome display. A prototype device using E Ink's color technology appears in Fig. 3.

A color device already on the market is the Fujitsu FLEPia, which began selling in Japan last year at prices in the $1000-and-up range. The FLEPia uses cholesteric-LCD technology (not electronic-ink technology) and runs Windows CE, so it is also Web and e-mail capable.

Qualcomm has shown prototypes of a color e-reader based on its reflective mirasol® technology (already in use for mobile devices). Release dates for such a device are uncertain, but a 2010/2011 time frame is likely. And there are additional color technologies under development. Generally speaking, e-reader color to date is of the subdued, muted variety – not brilliant as, for example, an OLED display. So it's safe to assume that most companies, even those that already have color, are searching for the ultimate solution to the best-looking low-power readable, color display. It is an evolution. Consider the case of smartphones and PDAs, notes Peruvemba. "They all started monochrome, then went to color."

Video

E-paper technology is generally not fast enough to handle video yet. This is an edge that a MEMS-based e-reader would presumably have because that technology can display video. Some manufacturers have tackled the issue by creating dual-mode devices, combining an e-paper display for reading with an LCD for Web browsing, video watching, etc. One such device is the eDGe reader from Entourage Systems, which opens like a book to reveal an e-paper display on the left and an LCD on the right, as shown in Fig. 4.

E-Ink-based video displays are at least 2 years out, says Peruvemba, adding that it is already possible to do a certain amount of pop-up-type animation with the technology.

Fig_2

Fig. 2: iSuppli estimates that Amazon held a 40% market lead in 2008. Source: iSuppli Corp.

 

Fig_3

Fig. 3: E Ink Vizplex color displays will employ an RGBW color filter. Image courtesy E Ink.

 

Size, Flexibility, and Ruggedness

Among the many e-readers on display at CES in January 2010, two in particular caught people's attention. Both Plastic Logic's QUEproReader (see "Flexible Displays Made with Plastic Electronics" in this issue) and the Skiff announced by Hearst feature displays that are first of all, large, and, second, flexible. The 8.5 x 11-in. QUE uses E Ink technology atop a plastic substrate, and the Skiff is also large (final size to be announced) and is made with E Ink's Vizplex film on flexible stainless steel. However, as this issue's guest editor Rob Zehner remarks in his guest editorial note, "A New Breed of Display Starts to Flex Its Muscles," both the QUE and Skiff technology may be flexible, but the form in which you will purchase it is not; both displays are enclosed in a rigid housing. There are still advantages to such flexibility: ruggedness (steel and plastic are presumably less susceptible to breakage than glass) and lack of weight. "Once you get to tablet size," says Peruvemba, "weight becomes an issue and flexible displays weigh less than glass." And big just keeps getting bigger. On January 14, LG announced a 19-in. digital ink-on-steel prototype that is clearly aimed at the newspaper industry.

File-Compatibility Issues

File compatibility is not a display problem per se, yet the way this issue plays out will have some effect on display makers. According to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor,3 there are more than 10 existing e-book formats. Amazon has a proprietary format for its e-books, although the Kindle can also read plain text, Microsoft Word documents, and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) files. Sony's Reader cannot read Amazon titles; it uses the ePub format, which at this writing seems to be gaining popular momentum. Sony announced a move to ePub in August 2009, and several other readers, including the Barnes & Noble Nook and devices from iRex Technologies, can also read the ePub format. Both Google and Project Gutenberg (www.projectgutenberg. org) offer free ePub titles, books whose copyrights have expired. The number of books available from Gutenberg alone is 30,000. As you might expect, the Kindle cannot read the ePub format. A voracious reader is likely to want to choose from the titles available from all of these catalogs, and at this writing, there is no "one device reads all."

Price

It is not necessary to consult a market analyst or a product manager to know that price plays a big part in e-reader adoption. Just ask your neighbor. Many people are waiting for prices to drop to within their comfort level. However, notes Peruvemba, deep discounting is not the whole future. "Price is going in both directions. E-newspaper and e-textbook devices are priced higher, whereas the entry-level e-books are priced lower. "Certainly this seems to be true in the case of the recently announced Kindle DX, which is $489, and the QUE, which ranges from $649 to $799.

As for the low end, how low is low? Right now, the basic 6-in.-diagonal-screen Kindle is $259. Will the magic figure that causes vast numbers of people to click "Order now" on their computer screens be $239, $219, $199, or less? Display makers may find the latest e-reader data from Forrester Research discouraging. As reported by Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps in her September 2, 2009, blog,4 the price at which most consumers surveyed would consider an e-reader expensive but still purchase it is in the $50–98 range. So, it would look as if the e-reader will only find full absorption when it becomes priced as a commodity – or maybe not. It was not too many years ago that the average parent would have considered a music device considerably smaller than a pack of playing cards and costing $150 or more to be an outrageous extravagance for a teenager. Now, iPods are near-regulation equipment for U.S. teens and are often replaced annually, regardless of need.

In any case, all of the above advances, and some of them in conjunction with price, will eventually cause many people to reach their personal tipping point when it comes to paying for an e-reader. Some may buy because they really want color or because they want to watch videos as well as read. Others will be enticed by a larger screen or the prospect of a really rugged device that can stand up to a lot of mishandling. Confidence in the long-term viability of e-book formats will compel others. Last, there is the factor of time. There are those – call them the late adopters – who simply prefer to wait until a new technology becomes less new before they open their wallets.

References

1http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1369429&highlight=

2http://www.eink.com/technology/howitworks.html

3http://www.csmonitor.com/Innovation/Tech-Culture/2010/0114/E-readers-the-compatibility-conundrum

4http://blogs.forrester.com/consumer_product_strategy/2009/09/new-forrester-report-the-ereader-price-squeeze.html •

 

Fig_4

Fig. 4: The eDGe reader, which maker Entourage Systems calls a "dualbook," features a 9.7-in. E-Ink-based screen on the left and a 10.1-in. LCD touch screen on the right. Users can call up a virtual keyboard for typing. It weighs about 3 pounds and is scheduled to ship in March 2010 at a cost of $490. Image courtesy Entourage Systems.


Jenny Donelan is the Managing Editor of Information Display Magazine.