Plastic Logic's yield problem

9 September 2008

I've got a tip for Joe Eschbach, marketing veep at Plastic Logic. If you're so worried about how much paper you're carrying around, try losing the ring binders, particularly if they are half empty like this pair from his part in the performance at Demofall 08 yesterday.

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Eschbach joined chief executive Richard Archuleta on stage to show off the latest prototype of the company's plastic ereader, using the pile of paper to show why you might want one. The demonstration showed that the company has some problems with yield on its display and more than a little chutzpah from Archuleta. Not only did he claim that the company plans to launch the first ereader for the business user - iRex was there several years ago - he boasted about the first "commercial scale" plastic electronics plant being fitted out in Dresden right now. I think Innos in Southampton, which Polymer Vision bought last year to make the displays for the Readius, might have something to say about that.

Although Polymer Vision does not expect to ship products until Q4, having slipped the launch date from the middle of the year, the Readius should still be on the shelves ahead of whatever Plastic Logic calls its device, which still has an indeterminate launch date sometime in 2009.

If you look at the shots, captured from the Demofall video, you can see clear stripes down the display. It's a similar problem to one that afflicts LCDs in that, if you lose one of the critical transistors that controls an entire column of pixels, you lose the ability to control any of those pixels. This display looks to have two of those faults and, I would imagine, there are a number of dead pixels as well. However, it's hard to see from this quality of video where they might be.

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Many LCDs get junked each day because of this kind of problem. But, if you consider that this has got to be the best display that Plastic Logic has right now, it indicates that the company is not currently able to make a screen with all the pixel rows and columns intact. The one or two pre-production examples of the Readius I've seen, which includes the one carried around by Polymer Vision CTO Edzer Huitema, didn't have that problem. The displays that Polymer Vision are somewhat smaller, which improves yield, but they have to tolerate being wrapped around a phone.

If there is one thing that Plastic Logic is going to be working on right now, it's getting rid of those dead columns. If they can't deal with that kind of yield issue, who they try to sell the display to is irrelevant. It just can't ship.

In terms of the features that Archuleta showed off yesterday, the weight of the device itself should be less than a pound. He claimed that the device is "less than a third of the weight of the MacBook Air", which weighs three pounds or 1.36kg. Given the size and shape of the device, that doesn't seem unreasonable. Battery life is "measured in days", which it should be for this kind of device.

All of the controls are on a touchscreen: you wipe a finger across the bottom of the document to turn a page. It seems the touchscreen is a little insensitive and needs a bit of pressure, indicating that it's probably a resistive sensor rather than the capacitive sensor used in the iPhone.

You can make marks on documents, but there was no indication that the device has a sensitive enough touchscreen to record letters or words. However, a pop-up virtual keyboard lets you make notes.