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

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what you can do with E Ink that you can’t do with LCDs is manufacture them using a roll-to-roll process. If you ever want to make a billion of anything cheaply, you print it. We announced last year that we are working with Hewlett-Packard. They have set up a process to develop roll-to-roll, impact lithography printing of active-matrix panels. So they can print a backplane, and our stuff comes in on top. That’s five, seven, maybe 10 years away. So it’s clearly not tomorrow. But in the long term, E Ink should be very competitive on price.

On what’s coming from E Ink in the short term:

What you’ll see next is a great range of screen sizes. So far the industry has been using the 6-inch size, which has helped to drive down the cost for everybody, by consolidating on one manufacturing process. But we are starting to introduce displays that are in many different sizes. And you will see flexible displays going to market, at small volumes this year, but 2010 will be a big year for flexible displays. And then at the end of 2010, you will start to see improvements in the ink. We will have a whiter white and a blacker black, and we will start to experiment with color. You will probably see 2011 be the year of color.

All of those things will progressively broaden and deepen the applications. As you have flexible displays, you can do big displays and something that is much more like a newspaper experience, or in color so that it’s much more like a magazine. So we’ve taken on books, and we will extend to other types of formats over a relatively short period of time. There are a lot of mobile devices that could use a low-power, thin, plastic display, so you will see us in other types of devices as well. But our key focus and mission is to provide the world’s best digital reading experience.

On whether a consumer electronics company should be happy if its device works so well that it becomes “invisible” in the hands of the user [as Amazon executive Ian Freed told CNET in a recent interview]:

I think it’s a good thing. That’s what you want out of a book—you want to be projected into the author’s mind. That’s all about providing a great reading experience. So we take it as a compliment when you lose yourself in a book. Another kind of goodness is that the display shouldn’t break, and that it should be flexible, and that you should be able to read for a long time in your alternate reality without having to recharge. In that sense, our product is very visible, and we’re lucky our display is the face of the Sony and Amazon products.

On selling the same screen technology in Sony’s devices to Amazon, and then to other e-book makers:

We’re in a situation analogous to Nutrasweet enabling the diet cola industry. How do you sell Nutrasweet to Coke when you already have Pepsi as a customer? The answer is, “Very carefully.” We keep as neutral as possible. Our goal is to offer a platform that everybody can innovate on. And by and large, people are making very different product decisions and exploring the boundaries of what’s possible. No two companies have made the same device, they each have their pros and cons, and are good for some people and not for others.

On how e-paper can save the book industry:

Worldwide, the book industry is an $80 billion industry. If, by distributing electronically, they could save 30 percent on their costs, that would add $25 billion a year to their profitability. The newspaper industry is twice as large, and could probably save 50 percent. What we’ve got here is a technology that could be saving the world $80 billion a year. So we take the long view. This is a business problem that you could drive a truck through. So what we need to do is simply be a good supplier, provide a platform upon which others can participate, and provide an ecosystem where lots of companies want to gather.

On the future of newspapers:

The next big wave after e-books will be e-newspapers, enabled by the flexible screens in larger sizes. Then there will be a second wave of e-newspapers enabled by color. The benefit of that is that color enables advertising. The majority of print media is heavily subsidized by advertising, including almost all magazines and newspapers, so e-paper can’t really get to where it’s going until it supports advertising. Once that happens, you’ll see whole new business models emerging. We are still in the second inning of the ball game.

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

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