E-ink, e-paper and e-books: technology, business, market

E-ink, e-paper and e-books: technology, business, marketE-paper (e-ink) is one of the present media technologies. Only the lazy dont write about book "readers" on its basis. E-paper has been on the market for about 5 years, but it is still considered to be a novice. Experts and analysts keep on making encouraging forecasts but things haven't got forward an inch. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of e-ink? What can we expect from e-books?

Technologies

E-paper was invented as early as the 1970s but came out to the "proscenium" at the end of the 1990s. The active commercial use of this type screens have started only recently, in the past few years.

E-paper has been gaining currency as computer technology and internet has been developing. As the size of the text that one has to read on the monitor has been growing there has appeared a need for the display that wouldnt make eyes tired. Both CRT and micro-light gas-discharge lamps of the present LCD always flicker. It adversely affects eyesight especially when one has to read a whole a few hundred-page book in a night, eyes get tired.

In e-paper, the image is formed not with the help of liquid-crystal matrix but with reflected light. And most of the energy is used for displaying of the picture. Such screens need a very small amount of energy for displaying. Thus, e-paper not only prevents eyes from getting tired but also saves energy, which enables to create long-living devices.

The first e-paper, called Hericon, was invented in the 1970s in the famous research centre Xerox PARC, where the first computer mouse, graphical interface of the OS, the modern techniques of the computer print and many other useful things were created.

Nick Sheridon introduced Hericon: a display consisting of polyethylene microspheres with negatively charged black and positively charged white halves. "Little balls" were put into a transparent silicone sheet where they could freely revolve. Depending on the polarity of the voltage with which electrodes were supplied, the spheres turned either their black or their white side this was a picture was formed.



The technology was developed in the 1990s. Joseph Yakobson suggested filling the spheres with dyed oil and white particles of titanium dioxide. The polarity of the electric discharge defines whether they will rise to surface or the pixel will remain dyed. The size of each capsule is only 40 micrometres. While in Hericon and early electrophoretic screens "pixels" were put between two fragile glass plates, Yakobson made it possible to put capsules between plastic plates due to using polymeric material. Besides, the thickness of the display turned out to be less than of a paper sheet. Yakobson called his technique "e-ink" and registered a company of the same name in partnership with Philips which didnt succeed much though. E-ink with all its technologies has been sold to Prime View recently. Meanwhile electrophoretic screens dominate on the market today.


But scientists dont stand still, they are advancing. In May 2009 researchers from Cincinnati University and Sun Chemicals Company suggested using ordinary pigmental ink for e-paper. The essence of the technique is that each pixel will consist of a visible part and a mini-reservoir where there will be pigment. Under current ink will be modified into pixels and then revert.


This technology has very good prospects for coloured displays. The thing is that in traditional e-paper a complex system of filters is used for generating a coloured image, which makes this kind of display very expensive. According to the new technique one pixel can consist of several subpixels of basic colours, for instance CMYK.


Similar research is being made in the depths of Philips. Though in contrast to scientists from Cincinnati engineers of the Dutch company suggest using two reservoirs with ink mixed in certain proportions.

The main advantage of the new designs is that they will enable to make e-paper as white as possible and the image on it wont practically differ from a printed one.

A disadvantage of all the e-paper techniques is a very long time of response. It doesnt allow to show dynamic content and to use for interactive applictions. Besides, scaling of documents on the screen is carried out very slowly.

Another direction of the technique development is combining e-ink and cholesteric liquid crystals. Such displays have been introduced by Samsung and Pixel Qi this year. E-paper is sprung into action for generating a static picture, for example, a document. LCD-technology is for dynamic scenes.

Business

One would think that e-paper holds all the aces: the displays are economical, they dont make eyes tired even when one reads for a long time. What impedes?

For the time being e-paper is not as white as we would like. It would rather be called very light grey. Besides screens made on basis of this technology are quite fragile. For many manufacturers frequent break-downs have become a real headache: if e-paper is not protected it can crack after just falling down or being lightly pressed.

And finally the main disadvantage is its price. Readers are still too expensive. Their cost is constantly falling but even today the prices start with $250-300. And the number of e-books functions is rather limited: a reader, a simple MP3-player, simple games, a photo browser in a monochrome mode. For instance, in the USA one can buy iPhone for $199, where one can not only read books but also play, watch video, listen to music with maximum comfort and etc. Of course, users vote for smartphones, MID, flatbed computers. The survey, carried out by Forrester Research, has revealed that people across the water think the fair price of an e-book is $50.

In hope of reducing the price manufacturers have produced books with 5-inch display this year. Before this the most common diagonal was that of 6 inches. The books have become lighter, more compact, fit a pocket and are $100 cheaper.

The situation is worsened by the fact that there are only a few plants in the world that produce the basis of readers a display on basis of e-paper. And only one technique is used at all the factories. It means that reader manufacturers have to assemble their devices from the same component parts, no matter if its a premium Sony, a budget Ukrainian Pocketbook or an obscure Chinese device. The competition turns into designers and application programmers rivalry. For example, Pocketbook has gained numerous fans in the countries of the former USSR only due to its good software.

In addition to reduce the price, e-book manufacturers have another way which is to raise its functionality.

The leader here is the shop Amazon.com. The first-scale retail dealer of the internet has produced the e-book Kindle. The unique feature of the device is the availability of 3G adapter module and integration with the book-shop Amazon rather than the facility of opening PDF files or the facility of reading aloud. In order to get a new book or a periodical issue the user dont need more than a minute. Such scheme has acquired a good reputation: according to Forrester Research, estimate sales volume of Kindle will come up to 3 million items. Amazon has already got its imitators.

Amazon.com is coming out to the world market with its e-book. In October Kindle is going to be on sale all over the world. Though having begun shipment to over 100 countries Amazon made time out. Because in many countries its still unknown which operator exactly is going to support 3G for Kindle. In the USA it is currently being done by AT&T which gives its users free of charge traffic. Besides for the time being Amazon.com is going to offer only books in English and American periodicals, which is sure to limit the number of potential customers in other countries.

"Independent" manufacturers of e-books not cooperating with libraries or book-shops have to work on increasing the number of their devices functions. For example the Ukrainian Pocketbook has in mind the e-book with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, sensor display and USB-host. Thus in order to survive readers will be turned into palmtops or plotting board devices.


Another way of the development of e-books has been proposed by the American shop Barnes & Noble. Its reader, as well as Amazon Kindle, is directly connected with the internet and makes it possible to get the latest press and books in a few minutes. But Barnes & Noble advanced having integrated Nook with a coloured sensor 3.5-inch display.

Apart from increasing the number of functions, e-paper has other future: thin and flexible displays. It will be much easier to use readers in the form of flexible transparent sheets than present readers, but these are only future prospects.

Market

Today most e-books on the market have a 6-inch diagonal with more or less the same resolution of 160-180 ppi. Moreover, the hardware component of readers is also more or less the same: ARM-processor with frequency of 300-400 MHz, 32 and more rarely with 64 MB of RAM. Quite often the same processors are used in books, for instance, in PocketBook 301 and Orsio b721. The amount of embedded memory for storing books and files depends on a model. The champion here is Amazon Kindle with its 2 GB on board. In 6-inch models there is a slot for SD cards as a rule.

In fact the difference between the devices is their design and ergonomic ability. They often influence users choice.

Sonys product has been recognized as the most solid by users. The e-books PRS-505 and PRS-700 produced by Sony are put into a metal body and are provided with a handy cover of high quality. Sony PRS-505 has a rather complex push-button control. PRS-700 is more ergonomic due to its sensor display. However both the models, according to users comments, are comparatively heavy. Slow text update on the screen and not the best navigation are also mentioned as disadvantages. Yet they are among the most prestigious and reliable devices.

Pocketbook 301 and Orsio b721 are good "using-one hand" solutions. A telephone joystick with a central button is the basis of the control system. One can work with a book using only one hand since the weight of the device makes it possible. However inveterate left-handed people feel infringed as operating control is on the right-hand side. Pocketbook 301 is remarkable for its good soft, handy interface and a good working speed. Orsio b721 has gained a bit fewer good comments.



LBook v3 combines advantages and disadvantages of the mentioned above devices. Its rather heavy as well as Sony, but doesnt have that impressive looks. Its ergonomic ability is disputable as well as its working speed. An advantage is the ability to operate a great number of book formats and a comparatively low price. At the same time LBook v3 is one of the most popular e-books in Russia and its users have become devoted fans of the trademark everything is not that bad as it may seem at first sight.


This autumn more compact makes with a 5-inch display have appeared on the market. They can compare with "a hand book" format in its size, where detective stories and novels for women intended for suburban train passengers are issued. Its more convenient to take such a reader with you than a 6-inch make. And the visible area of the screen hasnt been reduced much. The image resolution quality has increased which means that a 5-inch screen with the same resolution of 800x600 has more ppi.

Pocketbook 360 LBook v5 represent 5-inch e-books on the market. Pocketbook 360 has a chamfered shape. The book has proved to be more elegant and sophisticated than the previous one. The researchers preserved a "using-one hand" design. They added two big rewind buttons to the joystick. Alas, but they have become the greatest disadvantage of the good make the key stroke is not always efficiently fixed. The Ukrainians equipped the new reader with accelerometer which enables to change the screen orientation and got rid of MP3-player.


LBook v5 is a reduced variant of LBook v3. it has inherited all the advantages and disadvantages of the bigger book.


On the whole, e-books remain rather specific devices aimed at great fans of reading. Its handier to read from a reader than from a monitor but not that handy as to be ready to pay $300-400 for the pleasure. Only those who spend vast amounts of money on paper books can get compensation. E-book can also be a good gift.

Having tested several e-books of different formats I can say that the handiest are 5-inch models. Classic e-books are very expensive and completely useless devices for those who dont read 2-3 books a week. I dont think its a coincidence that most buyers of readers are IT-specialists who are duty-bound to read many books. Another problem of modern books is that they dont co-operate with book-shops and periodicals. Amazon Kindle has solved this problem for English-speaking customers. Today you download a book from the internet and upload it to your reader which costs $300-400 but it doesnt work fast, its screen is still worse than a printed page, etc.

On the edge of forthcoming feast days season announcements of new readers appear one by one. But one should remember most of them come from American or Asian companies where buying a new book is sponsored by either a book-shop or a mobile operator. The appropriate price level for customers should be considered not $50, as Forrester Research reports, but $200. If e-books cost less than $200 there will be a real reader boom.

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