The Future of Electronic Paper Looks Bleak

E Ink Music Stand

It’s amazing just how little progress has been made in the field of electronic paper over the past few years, and unfortunately it doesn’t look like that is going to change anytime soon.

The reason for this is the fact that E Ink holds a monopoly over virtually all the epaper displays used for ebook readers on the current market, both here in the US and throughout the world.

E Ink is known to license their technology to other manufactures, but what it comes down to is an utter lack of competition. And that just got compounded last week when E Ink announced they are going to buyout SiPix, their only real competitor in the epepar field.

SiPix screens are very similar to E Ink screens. Both utilize the same electrophoretic technology, but in different ways. SiPix screens were used in a few ebook readers, including the Pandigital Personal ereader and the Cybook Orizon, but the screens never really took off.

The reason was obvious. In a direct head-to-head comparison, Sipix screens are clearly inferior to E Ink screens.

The truth is SiPix didn’t stand much of a chance anyway. So the fact that E Ink is buying them out isn’t going to change a whole lot. The bigger issue is the fact that E Ink has no competition. The iPad and LCD ereaders and tablets are the biggest threat, but as long as dedicated ebook readers like the Kindle and Nook remain popular, E Ink is going to continue to dictate the rate of technological advancement.

And if the past few years are any indication, development is going to keep moving along at a snail’s pace. E Ink screens have improved very little over the past 5 years. Two years ago E Ink introduced their Pearl screens with better contrast, but even still those were just an incremental improvement over previous Vizplex screens, the difference is hardly even noticeable, in fact.

E Ink has other types of epepar screens too. They make a super high-definition screen with 300dpi, but they’ve been showing off prototypes of it for years without it even materializing into a marketable product.

E Ink also has color epaper screens, but they just aren’t very good. They are too dark and gray and the colors are all washed out. Unfortunately it looks like good color E Ink is a long ways off still.

Most people aren’t seeing it, but I do. The future of electronic paper looks bleak and stagnant because E Ink has no real competition in the field of low-power displays that are readable in bright light. Sure, they’ve got a bunch of cool concept products, like the E Ink music stand shown at the top of this post, but what about better ereader displays?

Perhaps some alternative display technology can gain ground, but that’s not looking very promising either. Both Bridgestone and Mirasol have decided to withdraw from the market, and Pixel Qi isn’t a threat at all. Hopefully some other company can rise to the challenge. If not, we might be stuck with the same basic monochrome epaper displays for the next several years.

20 Responses to “The Future of Electronic Paper Looks Bleak”

  1. I think the only actual threat could be an entrance in the market by Apple, which is not that impossibile to imagine, I guess.

  2. It’s impossible to get real sales figures, but my sense is that the electronic-paper e-reader is fading away. B&N’s Glowlight stretched the lifetime out a bit, but in the end, they changed a device that only reads e-books in good light into a device that only reads e-books.

    Given a choice between a tablet and a dedicated e-book reader, how many buyers are going to choose the e-book reader? Last Christmas B&N said that it couldn’t keep up with demand for the NOOK Tablet, but that sales of Simple Touch Readers were disappointing. That suggests that the market for dedicated e-readers is reaching saturation.

    I suspect we might see some renewed interest in dedicated e-readers when they’re routinely priced below $50 (US). But can that price level happen with an E-Ink screen? My guess is that e-readers in that price range will be LCD.

    As you noted, E-Ink wasn’t doing much innovating when the market was robust, so I agree not to expect them to do much of any innovating now. At least not for e-readers. Their innovation is going to be focused on finding new markets… like that music stand.

  3. A future does not necessarily mean that it has to have changes or progress. Perhaps it has reached the top level of that technology and it still have a stable market, for a time.

    I think the real competition for the E ink display is not only other screen technologies but the main issue that it makes it better and desired is low power utilization. So, the competition that will end E ink will be when devices are able to achieve much longer battery life with the the combination of better battery storage and lower power consuming components.

  4. @Doug E Ink screens are nowhere near extinction. I think there will be a demand for dedicated reading devices for a long time to come, especially since the literary and academic community has embraced them. At my university we have done major testing of Kindles, Nooks, and iPads among students, and the E Ink displays always win in the English department. My library loans out Nooks and Kindles, and it is one of the most popular programs. Of course science students prefer the iPad, but there is plenty of room in the market for both tablets and eReaders. There is a huge difference between reading on an LCD screen and an e-paper display. Low priced LCD screen eReaders (like the Literati) might be something for the department store bargain/junk bin, but companies like B&N and Amazon will stick with E Ink, and serious readers will hopefully demand more.

    That being said, Nathan is totally right about the slow progress that E Ink is making. Their Pearl screens are getting rather outdated, and there are serious consistency issues with the resolution between devices. They need to stop fooling around with E Ink crosswalks, traffic lights, and air conditioning unit displays and get serious about improving eReading. I’m still confused at how my Kobo Touch’s Pearl screen looked ten times worse than my Kindle 3, but that might be a font-rendering software issue. I am hoping that in the war between B&N, Sony, Kobo, and Amazon, one of these companies will finally play the HD high-resolution screen card. 300dpi resolution and 32 shades of grey on a 6″ display would be incredible. But the problem is the price war. No one wants to sell eReaders over $80-$100 anymore, and better software, better displays, and better hardware won’t be produced so cheaply. If the new line of Kindles comes out without any improvement to the display, I will start to lose hope of any real E Ink advances within the next few years.

  5. Andrew: there’s a difference between surviving and thriving. Yes, E-Ink type screens will survive. But the heady days of selling 30 million a year are gone.

    See, for example, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/biz/archives/2012/04/27/2003531343 — E-Ink’s chairman is quoted, “Our major customer was too optimistic about its sales in the fourth quarter of last year and ordered too much from us. That made the customer order almost nothing from us in the first quarter.”

    I don’t think it’s hard to guess who the major customer is. And they ordered “almost nothing” in the way of E-Ink screens for an entire quarter.

    Digitimes’ numbers (always to be looked at with some suspicion) show a drop of about 80% in E-Ink orders between October and December of 2011. The Kindle Fire and NOOK Tablet were introduced in October and November 2011.

    The heyday of E-Ink e-readers is over. Yes, there’ll still be some specialty markets, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing 8-figure annual sales numbers again. That’s why E-Ink is “fooling around with E Ink crosswalks, traffic lights, and air conditioning unit displays.”

    • Yes, I would agree that the initial Kindle craze has ended, but I’m hoping that the drop in mass appeal might actually benefit the quality of eReaders in general. The price wars will be left to Amazon and B&N, and smaller eReader companies (Onyx might eventually be a good example of this) will start building higher quality devices meant for specific markets, and for people who still want a purpose-built reading device. Open platforms, HD screens, 9.7 inch readers, E Ink tablets, ect. There needs to be enough of a demand for this to take place of course.

  6. As a musician, I am eagerly awaiting electronic-paper music readers, like the one illustrated above. Are there any that have gone beyond the concept stage, into actual production?

    • Not yet. Like most of their projects it’s still a prototype. It’s called Rosie, btw.

    • I wouldn’t get your hopes up Tom. E Ink has been debuting dozens of different concept applications for their technology for the past few years, and barely any of them actually make it beyond the tech show stage.

  7. Just a couple of comments. I don’t think the tablet market has finished maturing. What’s missing with the iPad is some sort of integrated keyboard and that’s what Microsoft’s Surface might prove out in the next couple of months. This way your tablet could be a laptop replacement.

    Then it would make sense to have a dedicated e-reading device. Backlit displays are impractical for heavy reading (more than one hour at a time). And adding higher resolution and 8 bit grey scale should help the e-ink screens get wider adoption.

    I’m disappointed seeing Mirasol leave the market. Based on screens I’ve seen, they have the best chance of cracking the color screen barrier where you could create a unified device that is both an e-reader and a tablet since the Mirasol screen support 30 frames per second.

  8. But what about the Nook with the revolutionary screen?

    • LCD back-lit screens will never match the comfortably of E Ink, no matter what they do. LCD screens and E Ink screens really can’t be held up in the same light (both literally and figuratively). They are two very different screens that have different strengths and weaknesses, and, essentially, different purposes. For long-form, dedicated reading devices, nothing compares to E Ink.

  9. I still have high hopes for Pixel Qi!

  10. Slim pickings, I think … but there’s been at least one dedicated electronic-paper music reader: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tw1xtpo7z6w

  11. John (from Netherlands) Reply August 7, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    What about Liqua-vista (electro-wetting technology) which was bought by
    Samsung. Does anyone have any new information about it?

  12. E-ink readers will die out. It is a useless device, compared to the actual and future tablets.

  13. I don’t think Ereaders are dead. I think the technology has matured enough and that the product is good enough that it will not be obsolete in six months or a year. When one buys a ereader, I think they will be keeping it for a while.
    Why do companies and the pundits expect consumers to constantly replace their digital product every year? If you get a good ereader, would you not be expected to last for years?

  14. Unfortunately, dedicated e-readers will fade to black. Their best chance would have been a Mirasol display of 10 to 12 inches for textbooks and magazines. A six inch color e-reader wasn’t going to be very popular for textbooks and magazines, which is the “killer application”. Six inches? What were they thinking about? If manufactures couldn’t come into the market with 10″ color readers, then they should’ve tried to develop any.

    As people become more comfortable reading textbooks, magazines and newspapers on tablets (as many already have), they won’t want to carry multiple devices around with them just so they can have a marginally better reading experience than the ever improving competing display technologies on tablets.

    Amoled and other technologies such as quantum dots, will so reduce the market for e-ink readers that they will only be used as paperback readers under $40 and other niches like music stands and price tags etc.

  15. Correction: [shouldn't have tried to develop].

  16. Great to see E Ink are growing as a company but is anyone concerned that the emergence of one single manufacturer in this area as possibly being detrimental to development? Competition spurs on better products that come to market faster, we are a big fan of E Ink of course with .epub and .mobi file format creation being a big part of our software. We blogged about this recently here http://www.3dissue.com/eink-screen-in-color-soon/ last year where we looked at the way in which E Ink create a very specific road map for their products, if they have the market to themselves we must wonder if this will continue? It would seem unlikely.