The future of e-paper: The Kindle is only the beginning

Thin, flexible, low-power digital paper is just around the corner. Will your next book or newspaper be 'e'?

Futures: New technologies, new economics

What kinds of technological improvements to e-paper could get consumers to adopt e-paper applications? Color is obviously one factor, and while it's not there yet, it will come, according to iSuppli's Colegrove. "There is plenty of potential for technological improvements that would increase the reflectivity of current e-paper technologies like those of E Ink and Fujitsu that use overlay filters," she says. "Further in the future, there's the possibility of color electronic ink." She predicts that color e-paper displays will be available in two or three years. E Ink's Peruvemba agreed with that time frame, and said his company will demonstrate a color display prototype at a trade show in May.

There are other technologies related to electronic ink on the horizon that promise high-quality color as well: DisplaySearch's Young cites Qualcomm's microelectromechanical system (MEMS) technology that provides saturated color, but consumes more power than e-paper.

Design and flexibility will also help determine e-paper's success, according to Young, who is particularly interested in Polymer Vision's Readius, a device that is currently available in Italy and due in the US in July or later. The Readius looks like a candy-bar-style mobile phone, but unfolds a flexible EPD screen to become an e-book reader.

The Readius screen uses organic thin-film-transistor (TFT) technology. "The Readius is the first use of organic TFT technology for an EPD screen," Young explains. According to Young, screens such as the Kindle's use an active-matrix design composed of silicon transistors. Because silicon technology is created using temperatures up to 300 degrees Centigrade -- a temperature that melts plastics -- these screens have, so far, been limited to glass. Organic TFT uses polymers rather than silicon, and so allows for more flexible materials.

Young says one company, Plastic Logic, is making large flexible displays using E Ink materials: "They can make a 10-to-12-in. display that would replace the newspaper. They have prototypes now, but we won't see product until the end of the year."

Fujitsu showed off a concept for a device based on a similar kind of large, flexible screen at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The Fabric PC looks like a soft trifolded portfolio. Opened, it reveals a flat keyboard on one panel and a display on the other -- a display that wraps under the keyboard. Unfold the keyboard as well and the entire inner surface of the device is an EPD screen as big as a desktop display.

The Fabric PC isn't a product prototype, stresses Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product marketing at Fujitsu, but an indication of the direction the company sees the market taking. A Fujitsu subsidiary, Fujitsu Frontech, is one of the companies working on EPD technology, and it has produced sample quantities of color e-reader devices and sign panels.

While concepts like the Fabric PC get headlines, it's the smaller displays that will find a market first, said Moore. "These e-readers are pricey," he said. "But the cost factors will come down. Screens will get cheaper when incorporated into consumer devices in mass quantities. EPD displays are theoretically cheaper than LCDs -- and they're moldable, shapeable. We've just got to get over that chasm of market acceptance."

Crossing the chasm is on Peruvemba's mind as well. He expects that consumers will begin to see small e-paper displays in the short term: "We'll see more companies making little segmented displays for devices like Lexar's USB drives. If an e-book reader is a 10 in terms of complexity, they're 1's. And that's now. In three to five years, who knows?"

Overall, there is a feeling of potential about e-paper that's fueled in large part by the size of the current market for publishing on paper. If e-paper grows from its current 0.1% of that market to even just 3 per cent or 4 per cent, said Peruvemba, "you'll be looking at a $400 billion market."

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David DeJean

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