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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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.

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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