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

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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 »

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

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