Kindling a Revolution: E Ink’s Russ Wilcox on E-Paper, Amazon, and the Future of Publishing

Almost as soon as Amazon released the Kindle e-book reader in November 2007, I settled in to wait for the Kindle 2. Like many other observers, I thought Amazon had made a good first stab at building a usable e-book device, but that it needed a sleeker profile, better ergonomics, new features such as text-to-speech capability, and a lower price point. Well, 15 months later, Amazon has thoughtfully delivered on most of my requests. From all accounts, the Kindle 2, which was unveiled on February 9 and began arriving on customers’ doorsteps this week, is such a giant improvement that it makes the first Kindle look like a clunky lab prototype. (Now if they’d only consider lowering the $359 price tag.)

But there’s someone who has been waiting a lot longer than I have for the Kindle 2, and for the huge buzz it’s creating around e-reading—about 11 years longer, in fact. It’s Russ Wilcox, co-founder and CEO of E Ink, the Cambridge, MA company behind the low-power, high-contrast “electronic paper” screen that is the Kindle’s main selling point. I had a chance to meet with Wilcox on Tuesday—and to play briefly with a Kindle 2, which had just arrived that morning. My first question was about whether any of E Ink’s founders thought it would take so much time, and so much money, to bring e-paper to the mass market.

After all, E Ink was launched in 1997, and has had to raise more than $150 million—mostly from big industry players like Intel, Motorola, Philips, Hearst Interactive Media, and Japan’s TOPPAN Printing—to transform e-paper from a drawing-board concept into a manufacturable product. Conceived at the MIT Media Lab, E Ink’s material consists of a layer of tiny fluid-filled microcapsules that contain positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles. Applying a voltage across the microcapsules pushes the white particles to the top and pulls the black particles to the bottom, forming white pixels that are clearly visible without the backlighting needed in traditional liquid-crystal displays. Applying the opposite voltage across the microcapsules creates black pixels. The material is “bistable,” meaning the particles stay in place after a voltage is applied—which is why the batteries in the Kindle, the Sony PRS-700, and other devices with E Ink screens last so long.

Amazon Kindle 2It sounds simple enough, but Wilcox says the company spent six years getting the technology to the point where Sony could use it in the world’s first e-paper-based e-book reader, the Librié, introduced in 2004. And it’s taken another five years for Sony, Amazon, and their competitors to create e-publishing ecosystems that consumers are interested in inhabiting (meaning not just the devices, but the content available for them and the mechanisms for purchasing, storing, searching, and annotating that content).

So while E Ink has been happy to leave the media spotlight to Amazon this month, the Kindle 2 and the near-iPhone-scale excitement that has greeted it represent an important coming-of-age for the 100-employee company. It’s perhaps the first moment when the founders’ vision for a world of publishing sans paper has seemed feasible. E Ink continues to explore applications for its e-paper displays outside the realm of publishing—Wilcox and his team showed me examples like a remote key fob for high-end automobiles, a credit-card-sized one-time password device for logging into a secure computer network, and a decorative cell phone cover—but the company’s core mission, Wilcox told me, is to “provide the world’s best digital reading experience.” That means creating better displays for handheld e-book devices, but it also means designing larger screens—and eventually, color versions—that would be better for magazine-style or newspaper-style content.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty over the prospects for such technologies. Many potential Kindle buyers (myself included) are balking at the device’s steep price tag, and if Amazon comes out with a rumored tablet-sized version aimed at the college textbook market, it’s sure to be even more expensive. (When I asked marketing vice president Sriram Peruvemba whether E Ink is working with Amazon on such a product, his answer was “No comment.”)

But over the long term, Wilcox expects that simple economics will drive more and more print-media companies toward electronic platforms, and that E Ink will be there to scoop up their business. When Silicon Alley Insider calculated recently that the New York Times could save more than $300 million every year if it stopped printing and delivering its newspaper and simply gave every subscriber a free Kindle, it was with tongue firmly in cheek. But for Wilcox, such suggestions are deadly serious. “What we’ve got here is a technology that could be saving the [global print media] $80 billion a year,” he insists.

Below are some of the other interesting outtakes from my conversation with Wilcox.

On the early days of E Ink, and the importance of being naive:

I co-founded E Ink with three fellows out of MIT and with Jerry Rubin, the founder of Lexis-Nexis. I wrote the business plan in my study, and got copies bound at Staples, and mailed it out through Kinko’s, and all that. I did all the things you should apocryphally do when you’re an entrepreneur. At the time, we had no idea it was going to take so long. It may be that naivete is your friend when you’re starting out in such a daunting venture. We understood that it was probably going to take two years to make something that people wanted to buy. And in terms of making something that looked good, we did that. But what we didn’t see in the beginning, and learned over time, was that it would take another two years to go from something that looked good to something that would look good for many years under all operating conditions—in other words, to achieve stability and robustness. And then it would take another two years to get something that you could reproducibly manufacture, at an affordable cost point.

On finding a sustainable business model:

We went through the bubble bursting like everyone else. We had several different applications on the table. And we had to figure out how we were going to have a big impact on the world with a very small amount of cash. We came up with a grand vision of doing “radio paper”—a complete device and a service. [Essentially, the Kindle, but about eight years before it was feasible—Eds.] But it became clear that, even after spending $100 million, we still had … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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