Electronic ink may rewrite book publishing industry

This appeared in the February 24, 2006 USA Today. This was before the Kindle or Nook had appeared, and pro­to­type e‑readers were bare­ly hit­ting the market.

usat-e-inkOnce upon a time, not too long ago, peo­ple proph­e­sied the end of the print­ed book (and mag­a­zine and news­pa­per). That did­n’t hap­pen, of course. As good as tech­nol­o­gy is, it could­n’t match, let alone beat, the expe­ri­ence of read­ing a print­ed book.

But we’re poten­tial­ly on the cusp of a change. A new tech­nol­o­gy is now mak­ing it into con­sumer prod­ucts that just might make elec­tron­ic books a viable alter­na­tive to print­ed ones. It’s called elec­tron­ic ink, and it can make a com­put­er dis­play look like a page in a print­ed book as opposed to a glow­ing screen.

Printed books, after all, are hard to beat. They’re cheap, portable, tough, bat­tery free, and easy to share, for starters.

Various attempts at elec­tron­ic books haven’t tak­en off for lots of rea­sons. It’s not com­fort­able to read while lean­ing into a com­put­er mon­i­tor, for one. And books for pock­et com­put­ers suf­fer because of those devices’ small screen size. Besides, LCD screens are hard to look at for long peri­ods of time because they’re lit from behind.

That last point may seem like a minor thing, but it’s not. When we read a paper book, the ambi­ent light is reflect­ed off the pages. When we read a com­put­er screen, the light comes from behind; it’s much less nat­ur­al and much hard­er on the eyes.

And that’s where the newest tech­nol­o­gy in the mak­ing-e-books-work arse­nal comes in: elec­tron­ic ink. It’s a quan­tum leap over tra­di­tion­al LCD tech­nol­o­gy, and makes e‑books as com­fort­able to read as paper ones.

Seeing the light

There are essen­tial­ly two kinds of LCDs. There are the sim­ple ones that dis­play the same infor­ma­tion over and over — the dig­its on a watch or the icons on a dis­play for exam­ple. Then there are the more pow­er­ful LCDs you find in com­put­er mon­i­tors that dis­play hi-res­o­lu­tion images.

The for­mer use reflect­ed light, like a paper book, but aren’t suit­ed to crisp, clear, ever-chang­ing type. The lat­ter can dis­play hi-res­o­lu­tion type, but have to be lit from behind.

Electronic ink offers the best of both worlds. It’s high-res, but reflec­tive (that is, it isn’t lit from behind), which makes it look a lot like a print­ed page. It’s easy on the eyes. In fact, look­ing at an elec­tron­ic-ink dis­play looks a lot like look­ing at a print­ed page.

Further, while an LCD needs to be pow­ered con­tin­u­ous­ly, e‑ink does­n’t. Just as the flash mem­o­ry card in your cam­era keeps its con­tents with­out a bat­tery, elec­tron­ic ink only requires a cur­rent to change the display.

Right now, the big e‑ink com­pa­ny is, in fact, Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink , whose investors include Gannett (pub­lish­er of USA Today), the Hearst Corporation, Intel, Motorola, and Philips.

E Ink’s tech­nol­o­gy debuted in ear­ly 2004 with Sony’s Librie , an e‑book read­er not sold in the U.S.

E Ink and Sony worked togeth­er on it, and devel­op­ing the Librie allowed the com­pa­nies to get the tech­nol­o­gy mature enough that it was com­mer­cial­ly viable, accord­ing to Darren Bischoff, E Ink’s senior mar­ket­ing manager.

The Librie was the pio­neer, and, Bischoff explained, oth­er com­pa­nies saw it and real­ized the potential.

Sony is about to release its next gen­er­a­tion e‑book read­er, the Portable Reader System , the PRS-500, in April. Unlike the Librie, it’s not locked into Sony’s pro­pri­etary e‑book for­mat; it can also read PDF books.

iRex Technologies , a spin­off from Philips, is work­ing on a larg­er-for­mat e‑book read­er called the iLiad that’s designed more for news­pa­per-like con­tent. And Jinke Electronics in China is cre­at­ing a Linux-based read­er. These are just the ini­tial prod­ucts. If e‑books catch on, they’re but the tip of the ice­berg. And there’s a lot to like.

Everybody wins

E‑books are a boon for pub­lish­ers. While the cost of the con­tent (author, edi­tors, lay­out artists) remains the same, the cost of pro­duc­tion and deliv­ery obvi­ous­ly drops sig­nif­i­cant­ly. There’s no paper to buy, no ship­ping charges to pay, no wor­ries about how big a pro­duc­tion run should be.

When they sell you a book, they can eas­i­ly include, say, 10 pages each from oth­er titles you might like. And they could offer long excerpts of all their titles to book­stores (or whomev­er sells them) so cus­tomers can “browse.”

E‑books are a boon to authors as well. For one, self-pub­lish­ing just got easy, and a self-pub­lished book can look as good as a pro­fes­sion­al one. They also allow pub­lish­ers to take a chance on unknown writ­ers because of the low­er cost of production.

All this in mind, the rip­ple effects are going to be inter­est­ing. If e‑books get pop­u­lar, brick-and-mor­tar book­stores will have to focus on the brows­ing expe­ri­ence, because that’s some­thing they can do bet­ter than any website.

The future of online book­stores, though, gets cloudy. Publishers will be able to sell direct­ly, so why pay a cut to Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble?

Or, rather, why lim­it who can sell your books at all? Why not let any­one be a reseller, the way Amazon does with its Associates pro­gram? If books are elec­tron­ic, there’s no lim­it to who can offer them. Maybe pub­lish­ers will give a small cut of their sales to any online direc­to­ry that hawks their wares.

Everyone could become a book­store, so where you shopped would depend on who you want­ed to get a com­mis­sion from the sale. Your local church or tem­ple could put a book store on its web­site and ask mem­bers to use it.

The edu­ca­tion-mar­ket impli­ca­tions are stag­ger­ing. High school kids could see bulging back­packs dis­ap­pear, replaced with down­loaded elec­tron­ic ver­sions. In fact, with no print­ing costs to pay for, schools could pay less for more up-to-date texts, and use the mon­ey saved to pro­vide e‑book read­ers for students.

For the col­lege mar­ket, there’s a dif­fer­ent issue: resale. It’s a huge mar­ket, so e‑books will need some mech­a­nism to allow them to be trans­ferred to a new own­er. Before MP3s got pop­u­lar, you could lend a CD you liked to a friend. Once the phys­i­cal media became less impor­tant, though, the whole issue of copy­ing and copy­right reared its ugly head.

To pre­vent that mess from mov­ing into the book indus­try, pub­lish­ers need to work out a way to allow peo­ple to lend, give, or sell their books. If the for­mat is com­plete­ly locked down, the indus­try will be still­born. (Like it or not, dig­i­tal music got pop­u­lar because of the ease of shar­ing, even if it was­n’t legal. ITunes would­n’t be pos­si­ble with­out Napster.)

A stan­dard — and open — file for­mat would be a good start; today there are com­pet­ing “stan­dards” from Adobe, Microsoft, Mobipocket (prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar), Palm, and Sony. Whatever for­mat emerges as the win­ner will have to let me treat an e‑book like a print one, mak­ing it free and easy to trans­fer own­er­ship. If the pub­lish­ers and the hard­ware and soft­ware ven­dors can get their act togeth­er, this mar­ket has a chance.

Will it replace print­ed books? Not for a long time, if ever. But is it a viable and prof­itable alter­na­tive? You bet.