E-reading: Revolution in the making or fading fad?

Aug 20, 2010 By ANNIE HUANG , Associated Press Writer
In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010, Chairman Scott Liu of Taiwanese company E Ink Holdings Inc. explains the qualities of their flexible display panels used in digital readers in Hsinchu, Taiwan. Four years ago Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink Corporation and Taiwan's Prime View International Co. hooked up to create an e-paper display that now supplies 90 percent of the fast growing e-reader market. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

The marriage of an American technology firm and a Taiwanese display panel manufacturer has helped make digital reading a prospective challenger to paper as the main medium for transmitting printed information.

Four years ago Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink Corporation and Taiwan's Prime View International Co. hooked up to create an e-paper display that now supplies 90 percent of the fast growing e-reader market.

The Taiwanese involvement has led some observers to compare e-reading to the Chinese technological revolution 2,000 years ago in which newly invented paper replaced the bulky wooden blocks and bamboo slats on which Chinese characters were written.

But questions still hang over the Taiwanese-American venture, including the readiness of the marketplace to dispense with paper-based reading, in favor of relatively unfamiliar e-readers.

"It's cockamamie to think a product like that is going to revolutionize the way most people read," analyst Michael Norris of Rockville, Maryland research firm Simba Information Co. said in an e-mail. Americans use at a rate "much, much slower than it looks."

Another challenge for the venture is the ability of key customers like Amazon and Sony to withstand the onslaught of multifunctional computing devices which have e-reader capability, particularly Apple's iPad, whose five-month sales history has left their one-dimensional models struggling to keep up.

Researcher Chris Hung of Taiwan's Institute for the Information Industry says iPad sales are expected to reach 9 million this year, a figure that took e-books two years to reach.

Still, the dedicated e-reader manufacturers appear to have a lot to be happy about - at least for now. Sales in 2010 - four years after the first devices hit the market - will probably reach 10 million units, according to Austin, Texas based research firm Display Search, up from the four million sold in 2009.

And with e-reader prices coming down quickly - a drop from $300 to $100 by 2011 for a 6-inch model seems a likely response to the iPad challenge - volumes could grow even faster, particularly with color and other innovative paper displays coming on the market to augment the existing glass-based monochrome version.

Kyle Mizokami, a 39-year-old freelance writer in San Francisco, has finished two dozen books in the last year on his Amazon-marketed Kindle, and counts himself an enthusiast.

"Having a Kindle has actually increased my reading," he wrote in an e-mail. "It's distraction-free reading, and I find it just as enjoyable - if not more so - than reading actual books."

Scott Liu, chairman of the U.S.-Taiwan venture, now known as E Ink Holdings, has an optimistic view of the e-reader's future, reflecting his confidence not only in the willingness of the marketplace to embrace e-readers in general, but also in his customers' ability to fend off iPad competition.

The display module Liu's company churns out is deceptively simple. It is produced by attaching a glass section to the back of a panel - a thin film produced at E Ink of millions of tiny microcapsules, each containing positively and negatively charged particles suspended in a clear fluid to show white and black spots. A processor and other chips are then attached to the panels.

"People read on digital paper exactly like reading on conventional paper, using natural light in the environment," Liu told The Associated Press. "In another five years, we could see a major change in reading habits, with more people switching to electronic reading."

As for the competition, he said, the iPad's liquid-crystal-display panel is vulnerable because it depends on backlight sources that cause eye fatigue.

The iPad "is fascinating, ... a multiple-purpose device," he said. "But it is not built for reading for long hours."

Still, many e-reading consumers seem to be opting for cell phones or tablet PCs like the iPad because their LCD panels display fuller color and can both play games and surf the Internet - abilities the dedicated e-readers lack.

Taiwan researcher Hung acknowledges that, but says that the marketplace appears to be big enough for both types of products.

"One can hardly finish Harry Potter on the , while comic books don't look so good on e-readers," he said, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the two competing devices.

Liu says E Ink Holdings is aware of the LCD competition, and plans to introduce a limited color e-paper display later this year, with a fuller version set to come out "in a few years time."

He added that E Ink has also unveiled a prototype of a plastic-based flexible display which is "ideal for children to use" because of its resistance to breakage. But he said production costs are still too high to bring the product to market, and did not provide a launch date.

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DamienS
5 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2010
E-reading: Revolution in the making or fading fad?

I don't think it's a passing fad, but it also isn't ready yet to supplant books. Before that happens, and before I get one, the following need to happen:

1) Content format standardization.
2) Higher quality displays, approximating ink on paper (both in look and resolution). It should be reflective (ie, not backlit) for long battery life, but should also have some form of illumination so that it can be read in a darkened environment.
3) Content must be plentiful and widely available. It should be priced much cheaper than the printed version and should be easily transferable to/from secondary storage.
4) It should be thin, lightweight and relatively inexpensive.
SiBorg
not rated yet Aug 20, 2010
I'd agree with all of the above but would add the ability to display equations and graphs. Soon as I find an affordable e-reader that does all that I'll have a portable technical library!
Sonhouse
not rated yet Aug 20, 2010
My wife embraced the Kindle, she just had cataract surgery and it didn't go as well as it should have, leaving her with dry eyes, now using restasis drops to fix that. It left her unable to read regular print but the Kindle allows you to adjust the font size and so she doesn't have to buy large print books. It is also a lot lighter than a book. The problems that we saw however are relatively low battery life, better than cell phones but not enough to say take on a camping trip with no recharge ability. Another problem: It breaks pretty easily, although they replaced it twice for free due to broken screens. It is a must to purchase one of the protector cases, they are rather expensive, 30 dollars or so. Two other problem areas: third party LED lights not up to the job and the Kindle software not doing proper page #'s but % of book complete. It also jumps back a few pages when advancing sometimes, annoying to get back to the page being read. They claim its the book file itself, but??
brianweymes
not rated yet Aug 20, 2010
Remember that any books you purchase on the Kindle are stuck on the Kindle because of DRM. If a better product replaces it in the future, you can't abandon it without abandoning the books you originally bought for it.
shavera
not rated yet Aug 20, 2010
@Sonhouse Turn off the wireless when you're not using it. You should easily get a week's worth of use out of a single charge. If not, there's something wrong with your battery.
As for the protector, I feel like this is a valid investment to extend the life of your device.
The lighting needs to be improved, sure.
As for the page numbering, you've said it yourself, you can increase the font size at will. Thus the number of pages and what page you're on will change. The reference value becomes the % of file you've read through, though I do wish their "location" numbering scheme was more clear as to what it means.
TabulaMentis
not rated yet Aug 20, 2010
Once the flexible OLED E-readers become available the size of a newspaper that can be rolled up and put in your pocket, then people will find them to be absolutely irresistible.
SolidStateUniverse
not rated yet Aug 20, 2010
I've had a sony PRS-600 for a year now. I bought it when they first came out. I still read paper books, but I've read hundreds of books during the last year. Well worth every penny I paid for it.
Monshat
not rated yet Aug 20, 2010
New thing coming down the track combines best of ipad and e reader. Google Mary Lou Jepson and read about Pixel Qi. Best.
Chef
not rated yet Aug 21, 2010
I truly believe that this will continue on instead of being a fad. I can easily see this being helpful for those going to school where you can just download the required school books without worrying about it being "sold out". Possibly just a very small fee to upgrade to the latest edition. The main hump will be in pricing of the content. If it lands up being like downloadable music (which is a major rip off), then it may not survive.
TabulaMentis
not rated yet Aug 22, 2010
I truly believe that this will continue on instead of being a fad. I can easily see this being helpful for those going to school where you can just download the required school books without worrying about it being "sold out". Possibly just a very small fee to upgrade to the latest edition. The main hump will be in pricing of the content. If it lands up being like downloadable music (which is a major rip off), then it may not survive.

That is a great example to use.
I forgot to mention that future flexible OLED screens will be used to watch movies, television, listen to music, telephone communications, computer with virtual keyboard, etc., etc., etc., etc. all rolled up into the size of a thin magazine or newspaper.