E-readers look for a lucky break

12 December 2009

Normally, when the subject of e-readers comes up in conversation, I point to the display as the main roadblock. Everything else in the design of the product is pretty well-understood and a lot cheaper than you expect. The key is how good the display is - not just in resolution and contrast but how it hits the battery.

Mike Banach of Plastic Logic demonstrating a prototype e-reader in late 2006

The one thing I normally leave out is how the books themselves get onto the e-reader, something that Kat Hannaford has (rightly) slammed at Gizmodo. However, none of these problems are technological: they are purely about the way in which the publishing industry works and what level of protection they will attempt to impose to maximise revenue and lock out competitors.

The display, which is the key component in an e-reader after all, is critical. How that technology evolves will determine how big the e-reader market, what the devices will look like and how they will behave. The first thing to get across is that the e-book market is not synonymous with the e-reader market. The success of the e-book market is, despite the draconian DRM measures publishers and distributors have imposed, assured. Give people a light, long-lasting, high-resolution display, they will read books on an electronic device.

Take the CrunchPad/JooJoo, for example. If you show someone a colour tablet, they will probably agree that it's something they'd happily sit on a couch reading – although they would be right to worry about eyestrain with today's displays. Tell them it costs $500, barely lasts a single evening on one charge and isn't very flexible, and their interest will quickly wane. They will make do with a laptop. They probably already have one and, although it's a bit heavier, the overall experience of web-surfing on one is about the same.

If you assume that, one day, a printed plastic display will arrive with at least the same contrast ratio and much improved battery life, then the market for the web tablet looks a little brighter. However, you have to wonder by that time whether the tablet is simply a mutated laptop with a detachable, wireless keyboard.

Today's e-reader is very much a product of the available technology. Hermann Hauser had a go at this type of product in the early 1990s with the Active Book Company. But nothing it needed was ready by then. Passive-matrix LCDs looked horrible - for the most part, they still do - and their battery life wasn't that much better than their active-matrix counterparts.

Fast-forward 15 years and the displays from e-Ink are ready. They are a little better visually than passive-matrix LCDs but, because they are bistable, the only time they need energy is when you change or refresh the display. So, you can get a thin, light device that will last for a week on one charge. This makes the e-reader viable if not a mass-market bestseller.

The race is then for an e-Ink display that is cheaper, to get the hardware down to the point where it becomes an impulse purchase at the airport, better in terms of contrast and colour, or both. Alan Patrick at Broadstuff has calculated that the cost falls to the point where e-readers are practically disposable within about ten years. This is the point where people buy one, read it in the bath or on the beach and don't bother locking it away when going back to the counter for another coffee. This is not an unrealistic prediction. There are some specifics to e-reader manufacture that make his 75 per cent per year drop in cost a little on the optimistic side. However, it is also an area where a sudden breakthrough, for example in roll-to-roll processing for displays, will result in an overnight halving in cost for the display.

At the very low end, I think there is as much market and as much margin in making e-readers as there was at the end of the 1990s in making pocket calculators - just before they really did become disposable.

The question for manufacturers is whether there is a mass market for e-readers before this happens or whether the opening is filled by phones, netbooks and laptops - or the still near-mythical web tablet.

If e-Ink, soon to be part of LCD maker Prime View, pulls a rabbit out of the hat and delivers a full-colour bistable display in less than five years - and it looks good - I think you can kiss goodbye to the dedicated e-reader. That is the kind of display that makes sense in a netbook. And any netbook armed with that kind of display has a good chance of getting near the battery-life target of today's e-readers.

The longer it takes for a colour e-Ink display, the more likely the organic light-emitting display (OLED) will take over the netbook and laptop business. Their battery life will be shorter, leaving a bigger window for the e-reader, although it will never be a no-brainer decision.

On the face of it, it seems as though there are solid educational and professional markets for the e-readers made by the likes of Irex Technologies and Plastic Logic. But many of those potential customers will look at one of these devices and ask: "Why one of these and not my phone/netbook/laptop?"

The only true advantage for the e-reader right now is portability and battery life. But, if you have to take one of those other gadgets with you on the road, then the e-reader is at a weight disadvantage: it's one more gadget and charger to pack. Battery life on netbooks is improving by leaps and bounds, although they are constrained by the LCD's thirst for watts. But, as a user, I can be pretty sure I can annotate documents on a netbook or laptop. Will the e-reader software let me do that? I want to do some calculations. Can I dip into a mini-spreadsheet to get that done? At which point do you stop asking those questions and decide you might as well crack open the laptop?

In the company's "What's not going to happen in 2010" report, ABI Research points to an education market for e-readers. Again: what's wrong with the laptop most university students will have already. And battery life is not so much of an issue - the chances are the text book will be read at a desk with a power socket. And then you have the question of how much the text-book publishers will co-operate. It's a lucrative business they are in no hurry to mess up.

So, while e-books will become more common, I'm not all that confident of a bright future for the dedicated e-reader. It's more likely to go the way of the PDA with the only mass market opportunity being for something so cheap it becomes a giveaway item - "Buy five ebooks for $50, get a free holiday e-reader!"