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History of E Ink

Posted by Jenn Vail on 2018-05-04

by Jenn Vail / May 2018

There has been an ongoing discussion in press articles, on blogs, and in social media on the topic of what E Ink means to books; and what tablets mean to E Ink.

As the company whose electronic paper is credited with the explosive growth of the eReader market, we have a few thoughts on this subject…

When E Ink started into the eReader space, there was no compelling device that combined a great reading experience with a wide range of content.

In the early 2000, there were some LCD-based eReaders & tablets on the market, but the displays were much thicker, heavier, less color saturated and lower resolution than they are today. Flat screen devices had not yet reached a price point that enabled wide market adoption. Some of us did read on our computer monitors and laptops, but studies showed that most people printed their emails and reading materials, again, due to a sub-par reading experience. In addition, these devices were not easily portable, had poor sunlight reading experiences and a short battery life. And lastly, content was not readily available outside of some smaller publishing houses and independent providers. The combination of these factors ensured that LCD based eReaders and tablets remained a novel product for technology evaluators, and had little to no impact on print book sales.

When E Ink launched our first eReader device with Sony, we realized that the delivery of content to the reader using the device would be a major part of the success or failure of the product. The Librie was launched in Japan, with the cooperation of several Japanese publishing houses. Unfortunately, the market in Japan wasn’t ready to take the leap into eBooks (and in fact, still hasn’t embraced them to the same extent as the US and Europe have), and the content available wasn’t enough to push early adopters into regular use of the device.

But in 2006 Sony re-launched their eReader in the US with better features and the product sold well. In the meantime, other eReaders were launched in Europe and Asia and gained traction, showing that a new market was emerging. Memory devices were becoming smaller and less expensive, allowing thousands of books to be stored in the device rather than hundreds, and as a greater awareness of the value of eBooks grew, more publishers began offering content.

In 2007 Amazon launched their first generation Kindle. Users could access an already familiar online bookstore, and the device featured free wireless, allowing users to download content in less than a minute. Barnes & Noble’s Nook soon followed, and by 2009, Kobo, Hanvon, Bookeen, Ectaco, Netronix and several others had launched devices. The eReader market opened up in China, Russia, France and other countries.

While LCDs have come a long way in the last 10 years in terms of energy efficiency, color range and resolution, they haven’t yet overcome the reasons people never loved reading on them to begin with. Part of what makes them so beautiful is the massive backlight shining through their liquid crystals. This light can be tiring to the eyes; people have experienced this for years on their computer monitor, and it is a necessary feature of the technology – without it, your LCD would be dim, with washed-out color. That bright light also accounts for the majority of the energy the display uses and it is a major reason for the quick battery drain. In addition, LCDs require a continual feed of energy to display an image – change one word on the page and the entire display must update, not just that segment. And that same power must be used to even maintain that image in a static form – although it doesn’t appear to be changing, it really is. Power is continuously used to keep the liquid crystals, and by extension, your image, in place. This is part of the “jumpy” characteristics some people notice when they stare at their LCD too long. While reading outside on your LCD has improved; it is definitely not ideal – especially in very bright sun. (Note: E Ink’s sister company Hydis makes FFS LCD products that are the most sought after displays in Tablet and Mobile phone devices.)

In contrast, displays using electrophoretic technology – the fancy term for electronic ink – are reflective displays. They don’t require an intensive backlight behind the screen – in fact, there is no light in the screen at all; the image is illuminated by reflecting the ambient light back at you from the pigments in the display. In addition, electronic ink is image stable – meaning that once an image is set there is no power required to keep it. The ink particles are “driven” by the electronics to their location, and there they stay until they are told to move again. As a viewer, you can see this happen – and it is why we periodically have to “flash” our screens from black to white – every so often we reset the ink particles back to start. The combination of these two factors means that we can cut the power requirements needed for the display by up to 90% vs. an LCD. And that in turn means a huge savings in battery life.

Of course – this doesn’t address the elephant in the room – color.

Tablets are LCD based multimedia devices; eReaders are generally thought of as dedicated content devices, using an ePaper screen (most likely from E Ink!)

And what you prefer, is, to a large degree, dictated by your habits as a reader.

For those who read only casually – where reading a book every other month or so, or a few a year, is enough, or for those who read magazines exclusively – a Tablet may be your best option. Chances are you don’t struggle with storage of books in your living space, or having to decide how much of your luggage space and weight can be devoted to tree-pulp based books – and therefore a device that gives you the ability to read here and there, but also gives you the ability to watch movies, play video games or surf the web, is probably the option you will choose.

However, if you are a moderate to voracious reader – someone who is reading multiple books a week or month; someone who has left shoes at home to fit Game of Thrones into their suitcase – well, chances are you aren’t fitting in reading only when the commercials come on TV.  For you, reading is part of your daily life – you don’t want to hop over to Twitter to check out your feed in the middle of your book, you want to know what happens next in the chapter you are immersed in.

For those who make the argument it’s one or the other – we make the argument that it doesn’t have to be.

Now you can go on vacation with both devices – and swap one for the other with your partner, friends, or kids while on the trip – someone is reading while someone is surfing, and visa versa.

The iPad Mini is retailing at it’s cheapest at $329. For that price you can get an E Ink display based Kindle or Nook and a 7” Tablet, and still have $61 in your pocket to load up on content.

Topics: Electronic Ink Technology, E Ink History, eReaders

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