Turning Technology into Products


Last week, I was having a casual conversation with a friend of mine who was gushing for about the hundredth time about how much she loves her Kindle ebook reader. The Kindle, which is officially named on the Amazon Web site as "Amazon's Wireless Reading Device," is a portable electronic device designed for reading not only books, but a variety of other content as well. It has a built-in connection to Sprint's 3G EVDO network, and the linkage to Amazon provides access to a lot of content.

To the casual observer, the most prominent difference between the Kindle and other portable electronic devices is that the Kindle uses an electrophoretic display developed by E Ink as its screen. What was surprising to me in our conversation, though, was her perspective of what made the Kindle such a cool device. Her comments were interesting to me in describing what it takes to launch a successful product based on new technology. Here's a hint: it's not just the display!

The Kindle and other electronic-book devices are of personal interest to me due to my association with E Ink. I joined E Ink in 1998, as their first Director of Technology, right as the company was getting started. Those first few years were great fun, and many of the capabilities now seen in E Ink products were demonstrated relatively quickly. In particular, in collaboration with IBM Research, we were able to demonstrate in 2001 that an a-Si backplane developed for use in AMLCD technology could be used to build a high-resolution active-matrix electrophoretic display (AMEPD). While the technology has been refined in many ways since that time, the basic performance demonstrated by the screen in the Kindle is similar to the displays over 7 years ago.

Since technical success was coming so quickly, there was an expectation that commercial success would not be far behind. I recall an early conversation, though, with the late David Mentley, who was a display industry analyst for Stanford Resources (later acquired by iSuppli Corp.). Dave and I were talking at some SID function and he told me that any new display technology takes at least 7 years from inception to market success. Not only was I unhappy hearing that prediction, but in fact was confident that the electrophoretic active-matrix product would be different. The electrophoretic screen showed a combination of sunlight readability, low power, and wide viewing angle that could not be matched by any other high-resolution display technology at that time. While I left, E Ink in 2002, it appeared that the only remaining hurdle was to convince a display company to launch a product. How long could that take?

Well, Dave was prophetic. While the electrophoretic screen showed some great benefits, there were also looming uncertainties. Manufacturing teams were nervous – the electrophoretic technology required a brand new assembly technology, required an expensive TFT backplane, and there was no history regarding the high-volume fabrication of electrophoretic products. Launching an AMEPD as a real product would be a significant investment in time and money, with some risk. On the marketing side, there was nervousness that a display that could not deliver color, nor show video, would be accepted by consumers. The screen showed some unusual visual transitions in changing from one image to another, which was also a cause of concern. Finally, it was not clear where the content for an electronic-book reader would come from.

History shows that these fears and issues were overcome. Sony took the early plunge in launching the Sony Reader with some success, and now the Kindle is now generating buzz for both Amazon and for E Ink. It is tempting to think that finally, after all these years, the nagging technical problems that delayed a high-volume product have finally been solved. While I'm sure that there were many hurdles to solve, I am not convinced that technology was the issue here.

Let me come back to my conversation with my friend. After listening to her tell me how great the Kindle is, I asked her to tell me what she liked about it. She quickly rattled off a number of properties that were important to her: "It's easy to carry around – it fits in my purse"; "I can buy the books I want whenever I want to"; "I can read newspapers on it"; "I can fit lots of books on it at once."

After she paused, I asked, "Well, what about the screen?" "Oh yes, I like the screen. It is easy on my eyes, not like my laptop."

So there you have it. The obvious value proposition (at least to the display-oriented person) is the cool display. To my friend, though, the most important aspects of the device were the portability and easy access to content. The screen was important, but wasn't what got her excited. This distinction may point out why the Kindle seems to be getting traction when electronic-book readers, using all sorts of technologies, have had a more difficult time. Amazon got it right!

I am tempted to draw similar distinctions between this case and the rapid rise in touch-screen technology fueled by Apple's iPhone. Touch-screen technology has been around for many years, but it took an Apple to identify what the killer application for touch would be. Now, SID conferences and publications are buzzing with discussions around touch technologies at a level unheard of just a couple years ago. It seems that all the technology was waiting for was a great idea on how to use it.

So, the lesson that bears repeating is that people generally buy products, not just displays. The Kindle product is a winner, and the display is just a piece of the pie, along with the wireless network and the large content library. Who would have thought?

Paul Drzaic
Society for Information Display