Hey Apple, where’s the e-paper?

Simon Jenkins writes in Friday’s Guardian:

“I am amused that each development of the e-book renders its pages more like print on paper. Its LED gets more like daylight, its page-turning more finger-friendly, its packaging more appealing”.

His point is that e-books seem to be trying to replicate the experience of reading a ‘real’ book, but in fact the comment about LEDs becoming more like daylight disguises an important technology issue and it is one of the distinguishing features between previous e-readers and the Apple iPad. That is, we have the e-book, but where’s the e-paper?

To date, the e-books that everyone has heard about have used electronic paper – essentially a black and white screen that replicates the optical properties of paper and is therefore easy to read. Vast research efforts have gone into this, particularly from UK companies such as Cambridge University spin-off, Plastic Logic. These displays can be read for long periods of time, in a variety of light conditions (without eyestrain), and use far less energy than conventional displays. This therefore means lighter batteries, a significant factor in the weight of any portable device. Whilst these factors were all meant to help an e-reader seem more like a book, they have also resulted in e-paper devices being more environmentally friendly devices than standard laptops, in terms of in-use energy consumption at least.

What’s interesting about the Apple iPad is that it is not moving in this direction. It features an LED backlit display and Apple seems to be gambling on the added interest of a colour screen to override any shortfall in readability (colour e-paper displays are not yet available commercially due to quality and design issues). As an e-reader its primary function seems to be dedicated to making Apple a major player in the electronic book market through its iBook service. In this respect I’m sure Apple will be successful and unless a colour e-paper product (or equivalent) comes along fairly sharp-ish it seems at least possible that their new device might kill the e-paper product category.

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