e-Readers Get Color(ful)

If there is any product right now that is enjoying relentless momentum in terms of market penetration, e-Readers are that product. Despite the predictions of some industry experts that the iPad would render the Kindle and other e-Readers obsolete, 2010 sales were brisk, especially if the proclamations of retailers and analysts are to be believed. While characteristically reluctant to reveal specific figures, Amazon stated that its latest Kindle had replaced Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the final book in the wildly popular series by J. K. Rowling) as its top-selling product of all time. Barnes & Noble reported record holiday sales for 2010 and attributed the bulk of that success to its NOOK e-Reader.



The LCD-based Barnes & Noble NOOKcolor e-Reader was commercially released in October 2010 for $249. Image courtesy Barnes & Noble.


While overall 2010 figures have not yet been reported, a recent Gartner Group study predicted that e-Reader sales would reach 6.6 million units in 2010, up 79.8% from 2009 sales of 3.6 million. In 2011, according to Gartner, sales will exceed 11 million, a 68.3% increase from 2010.1 But, in fact, you do not need to peruse the reports of analysts to gauge the success of e-Readers: you only have to look around the cabin of any U.S. domestic flight to see that the little devices have proliferated like mushrooms, especially compared to a similar flight a year ago.

Must Have Color

Successful as e-Readers are, the general notion is that they must have color in order to maintain momentum. E Ink, for example, which makes the imaging film in the mono-chrome Amazon Kindle and numerous other e-Readers, has been showing its color display prototypes at Display Week for at least a couple of years. Now, E Ink has officially introduced Triton, the color version of its monochrome technology. According to an E Ink spokes-person, Triton is just like E Ink's latest-generation imaging film, Pearl, except that it uses color filters atop the monochrome film. Triton is in mass production and will soon be available in commercial products such as the Hanvon e-Reader, which is scheduled to ship around late Q1 2011 for approximately $450.



Triton, E Ink's color imaging film, will be powering a number of devices that will become commercially available this year. Image courtesy E Ink.


Another color contender that showed up at CES this January was Qualcomm's mirasol® color e-Reader, which is based on the company's reflective technology. The device was also shown at CES 2010, and while some industry observers noted that this year's prototypes look closer to commercialization, Qualcomm has yet to set a date.

In a way, it can be argued that color already has come to e-Readers – if you include LCDs. The NOOKcolor from Barnes & Noble, for example, was introduced toward the end of 2010 and has vibrant color courtesy of an IPS panel from LG. The NOOKcolor retails for $249. You could even argue that tablets such as the iPad are, or can be considered, color e-Readers because many people use them for that purpose.

Adding another potential technology to the mix is Samsung, with its recent acquisition of Liquavista, a Netherlands-based company that makes an electrowetting technology that operates in transmissive, reflective, transparent, and transflective modes. Potentially, this technology can enable colorful displays with reduced power consumption. At press time, Samsung was not commenting on the acquisition or any future products, but it seems reasonable to assume that plans for some type of e-reading/tablet device are in the works.

The merging of e-Reader, tablet, and display technologies may be where all this is headed, at Samsung and elsewhere. The current tradeoffs are that reflective e-Readers offer colors that are fairly muted. LCDs have brighter color, but use more power and are not as sunlight readable. Readers such as the Kindle also mimic paper as a reading experience, which for most people is easier on the eyes than reading from a backlit device. As these different technologies are developed to overcome their relative shortcomings, their confluence will undoubtedly make for a better electronic-reading experience. Whatever technology "wins," the consumer will be the biggest winner.


1http://www.electronicsweekly.com/Articles/ 2010/12/09/50083/global-e-reader-sales-to-reach-6.6m-2010-gartner.htm

 – Jenny Donelan