WILDSTROM @ CES: E-READERS AND LOW-POWER DISPLAYS

by Steve Wildstrom

E-readers took off as a hot category in 2009 and while the Apple tablet is a specter haunting the market, I think this category will be both commercially successful and will drive important innovation for a long time to come.

Que The most interesting new entrant is the Que Pro from Plastic Logic, announced Jan. 7 at the Consumer Electronics Show. It’s a large-format (10.7 in./267 mm diagonal) but very light reader aimed at the business and professional market. Although the display is based on the same E Ink “digital paper” used by the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, Amazon Nook, and others, the technology literally underlying the display is radically different. The electronics driving the display are printed on a flexible plastic substrate and the entire display module, which is no thicker than a few sheets of paper, contains no glass. The Que Pro is not cheap, but not prohibitive for the professional target market. A 4GB version with Wi-Fi only costs $649, while the 8 GB model with both Wi-Fi and AT&T 3G wireless fetches $799. (The Que will be introduced in the U.S. only in April, but other countries will probably come along soon.)

The display for an e-reader poses very special challenges for designers, and E Ink is the best compromise available today. The simulation of black ink on white paper—it’s really more like dark grey on light grey—is easier on the eyes than reading a backlight LCD screen, as long as the ambient light is good. More important, the nature of the display consumes power only when drawing a new page and the image will remain stable, paper-like, when the power is removed. With the radio off, I have been able to use my Kindle for a couple of weeks of active reading.

On the other hand, E Ink has some very substantial limitations. Color remains a laboratory project and is probably several years away from commercial use. Fujitsu is selling a color reader called the FLEPia in Japan, which uses an E Ink-like display technology, but the colors are washed-out and murky. Screen redraws take an eternity by LCD standards, making the display suitable only for status text and graphics.

Still, Plastic Logic has done a lot to overcome the disadvantages of E Ink display. One problem with existing readers is that they render all text in the same, rather boring, manner. Plastic Logic worked with Adobe to allow for much richer typography that allows the creators of content, including commercial publishers, to preserve the distinctive flavor of their documents on the screen. This means that publishers can not only retain their branding through type (a phrase popularized by Adobe) but can use typography to replace color as a way to distinguish different parts of a document, a technique used for generations before color printing became standard.

The Plastic Logic transistors-on-plastic technology is not necessarily limited to E Ink; it can drive any screen type where pixels are manipulated by an active matrix of transistors. The company is not yet discussing plans beyond E Ink—it’s been hard enough to get that to market—but one possibility for the future is organic light emitting diodes. OLED screens are less power hungry than LCD, though still far thirstier than E Ink. They are also quite expensive currently only practical in sizes up to about 4 in., such as the display used on the HTC/Google Nexus One phone. Also, while the readability of E Ink improves as the ambient light gets brighter, OLED washes out in bright light and becomes all but unusable in direct sunlight.

A more distant color possibility is Mirasol, a new low-power display technology developed by Qualcomm. It is a dichroic process that produces color similar to the iridescence in a butterfly’s wings. Again the problem is cost and scale; current commercial Mirasol screens only go up to a couple of inches.

Former BusinessWeek columnist Steve Wildstrom is serving as a guest blogger at CES for NVIDIA, for which he is receiving compensation. The opinions expressed in his posts are his own, and not necessarily shared by NVIDIA.