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

2/26/09Follow @wroush

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work to do just on the display technology. We were diluting our efforts too much. So we turned to a business model where we would make the ink—a film of microparticles that would be the front part of a display—and we would sell that to the world’s display companies, who could drop it in on top of the same backplanes they use for LCD screens, turning their LCDs into e-paper. And more or less, that vision has held. We sell a component that allows LCD companies to become e-paper companies.

On the first Japanese e-book using E Ink e-paper, and the birth of the Kindle:

In 2004 Sony launched in Japan with the Librié. And it didn’t really work very well in Japan. Critics loved the hardware, but there were only 1,000 books available, and that does not make a successful publishing market. And it turns out that e-books are a tough sell in Japan because there is a thriving used bookstore market. People don’t have bookshelf space in their homes to store a lifetime of books, so they have this well-developed practice of returning books to used bookstores, so you can get any used book you want for a dollar. At the same time, people were getting used to standing on trains and reading on their little cell-phone displays. So between those two things, it was very hard to launch the Librié.

But Sony had the vision that if they added a bunch more content and brought it out in the U.S., they would have a product. And at the same time Amazon took note, and said, ‘Aha, the time might finally be right for e-books, if we were to tackle this as a service and sell the content.’ So the Sony PRS-500 launched in 2006 and Amazon came out with the wireless Kindle in 2007, and those guys have each progressively improved their products. From a business point of view, there were some tough times along the way. But since 2004, when we first saw the Librié come out in Japan, our revenues have doubled every year, because we have just been getting more and more devices out there.

On the latest technological improvements in the E Ink system:

For the upgrade from the Sony Librié to the PRS-500 we upgraded the ink. And for the PRS-700 and the Kindle 2 we have upgraded the electronics.

Making the ink better is all about the quality of the ink coating—the whiteness of the white and the darkness of the black in terms of pigments. It’s also about selecting the right ingredients so the ink can move quickly and hold its image accurately. You also want it to work well in the cold, withstand a certain amount of pressure, and be able to manufacture it at a reasonable cost, reproducibly, and find upstream suppliers who are reliable. It’s a very complex system design that combines chemistry, material science, electronics, optics, and mechanical engineering. It’s not trivial to put together, which is why it’s taken 12 years and $150 million.

E Ink's Broadsheet development kitOn how the “Broadsheet” chip has improved the interfaces of the latest Sony and Kindle e-book devices:

One of the big advances for this generation is that we’ve developed a new method for driving the electronics—essentially, a new graphics card, the Broadsheet. The Sony PRS-700 and the Kindle 2 are the only two products that have it. It gives you the ability to do stuff like scrolling around more smoothly, and writing with a pen, and typing up to 200 words a minute, and showing enhanced grayscale images.

Broadsheet has the ability to, in parallel, update 16 different regions of the screen. Before, to get a dark area of the display to turn white, you would turn on your voltage for a period of time, maybe half a second. (If you want a shade of gray, you just turn it on for a shorter period.) During that time, the display would scan rows and columns of pixels serially, from top to bottom. [Before Broadsheet, in other words, changing any portion of the picture---scrolling through highlighted items on a pop-up menu, for example---required redrawing the entire screen.---Eds.] But the Broadsheet allows you to have 16 regions that you can define on the fly, and start the switching at different times. So instead of waiting for one scan to finish, you can start the next one, and stagger them, which gives you the impression of movement. The bottom line is that when you do this, plus some clever programming, you end up with animation and a much more interactive system, even though the native ability of the ink has not changed.

The result is that for both the PRS-700 and the Kindle 2 we have improved the user experience with faster navigation. You can more easily switch between titles. You can more easily navigate within a book to find the place you’re reading. You can more easily type the names of books you want, and make notes to yourself. Before, it was painfully slow to add annotations; now you can annotate as quickly as you can type. The other side of it is that you can now use the screen as an input device, for typing, touching, or pen writing. So you will start to see products on the market that let you write on the e-paper, just like a diary.

On the cost of the Kindle’s 6-inch e-paper screen:

We don’t disclose that. Our customers wouldn’t be happy with us. But if you want to buy a development kit and design your own device, it’s $3,000. With the development kit, you get everything that’s inside an e-book, including a little chip that runs Linux and a bunch of open source drivers, a touch screen with pen input, and the Broadsheet chip. People are doing all sorts of fancy stuff with that. There’s a fellow in Malaysia who has ported the Linux X Windows system to the device, and there are some folks on the West Coast who have ported Android to it. So part of what we’re doing is just making this open and trying to let lots of people find interesting uses for it.

On the fact that electronic paper is still far more expensive to manufacture than LCDs:

The beauty of E Ink technology is that by and large, what we’re doing fits in with the existing LCD industry. You do have the cost hurdle that you need to worry about, because E Ink has smaller production runs, against the billions of LCDs shipped every year. But we use a lot of the same components as LCDs, so as their cost comes down, we come down too. In the long term, you will see E Ink being similar to LCDs in price. And in the very long term, it should be cheaper than LCDs, because … Next Page »

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

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  • http://danweinreb.org/blog Daniel Weinreb

    The Kindle is great, even the original one. I use it every night. E-Ink is an amazing breakthrough; thanks so much the inventors! See http://danweinreb.org/blog/the-amazon-kindle-we-like-it-very-much

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  • Robert B

    “Many potential Kindle buyers (myself included) are balking at the device’s steep price tag ($359)…”

    With paperbacks at $8 to $10 apiece now, you’d probably have to be someone who reads 100 paperbacks in their life starting today to have it make sense. Personally, I read 100 paperbacks in _6 months_, so yeah, I’m getting a Kindle 2.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Wow, Robert. That’s, like, a book every two days. When do you find time to work?! Actually, I’ve heard the same thing from other readers, including the previous commenter, Dan Weinreb: i.e., that if you are a true bookworm who likes to take lots of material with you wherever you go, the Kindle is ideal.

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  • joeshuren

    Wade, please get a Kindle 2 and also an OLPC XO-1 and compare them in e-book mode. Consider that Pixel Qi says it will come out with screens even better than the XO-1, using the same LCD production lines as now, at much reduced prices, and with huge power savings. Consider that the screens will be as readable as the Kindle’s but much more useful as they already have color and fast refresh. Consider that the screen technology will not be used to lock in proprietary business model like Amazon’s.

  • Jason

    I love the whole “will save the world xx billion a year” comments they repeatedly mention. In fact, this will put a lot of people out of business- there’s lots of jobs in the printing/paper industry. Besides, what’s wrong with reading a book the same way your grandfather did?

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  • http://highlycomposite2.blogspot.com Jaya Kumar

    joeshuren, That’s an interesting question that you asked about comparing “Kindle 2 and also an OLPC XO-1″. I have both displays, specifically, an E-Ink Vizplex display and an OLPC-XO-1 and the XO is in reflective mode. The E-Ink vizplex display is orders of magnitudes better in terms of contrast, reflectivity and viewing angle. You then go on to say “that Pixel Qi says it will come out with screens even better than the XO-1, using the same LCD production lines as now, at much reduced prices, and with huge power savings.”. That’s nice, lets talk about that once its actually here and available.

  • http://highlycomposite2.blogspot.com Jaya Kumar

    Jason, you said “what’s wrong with reading a book the same way your grandfather did?”. I won’t take that argument to its logical conclusion by talking about caves, horse drawn buggies and whale blubber lighting. There are numerous reasons for preferring e-paper to paper. The environmental and monetary cost of producing paper, even recycled paper via harvesting, branching, transportation, pulping, refining, bleaching, printing, and more transportation is simply unsustainable. The fact that we can do that using wireless and an electronic display is just plain progress. Yes, folks who are in those industries will encounter change. That’s a good thing.

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  • Salvatore A. Buttice

    I personally use my old Palm T|X to read my ebooks using Mobipocket. Love the thing, although I wish it had a better battery life. It’s more compact and easy to carry (on a belt clip), so I don’t have to lug this huge square around with me wherever I go. And it’s also useful for other things than just reading books.

    As for if it’s worth it, really it probably isn’t. I use it for convenience but you still pay 4-8 dollars per paperback, and 15-25 for books released in hardcover. And that is PURE profit, since the hosting compared to publishing/shipping/etc. is pretty cheap.

    I still like dead tree editions of books. I still buy them, and still put them up on shelves in my house. I feel pretty safe with a paperback, and if I screw it up I can get another cheap. Lose 1 – 512meg SD card though, and my 500 books are history if there’s a HD problem (which has happened to me. Do you know how long it takes to redownload 500 books?)

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  • Robert B

    @Wade Roush: Curse my fast reading ability :( I typically end up reading 1/4 to 1/2 of a book just before falling asleep.

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  • Gnar

    Last month I was excited about eInk, and then I saw the $3000 dev-kit price available in only one size.

    Then I became un-interested.

    If they don’t want to see their product succeed, and by that I mean shutting out the very people who would be most likely to create innovative uses, then I applaud them.

    100 dollar gumstick + 2900 dollar eink display equals why bother. May as well buy a Kindle and just use it rather then innovate.

  • http://ol.com Rick ills

    I have the Sony reader. The claim of over 7,000 page turns only holds if you do it in 2 weeks. I use the reader for referencing and every time I open it up the battery’s dead. Doesn’t hold a charge or more than 2 weeks. Pooh Pooh.

  • yjkkk

    I have several questions/comments want to share with you guys:
    1. Do you have any idea what kind of fluid E-ink is using to fill the Kindle display? If it is flammable and harmful, is it so funny to claim green and enviromently friendly product?
    2. I do not believe that Kindle has one order of magnitude high of contrast compared with reflective LCD. They are 10 vs 4. Not 40 vs 4.
    3. The higher price of Kindle is mostly linked to the poor film yield of E-ink manufacture. In near future they are most likely will not improve it due to the inherent difficult of their manufacture process.
    4. E-ink has difficult to get nice full color film due to its inherent technology challenge. They can use color filter, but the color is so dull. Without color and video speed. This kind of display will out of market soon or later

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