Not too many people are talking about the future of dedicated e-readers these days, which is why I decided to meet with the folks from E Ink, the company that produces the displays found in the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and plenty of other e-ink e-reader devices. I asked Giovanni Mancini, E Ink's director of product management, what Amazon would be releasing this holiday season because, well, Amazon wouldn't tell me.
"I can't tell you, either," he said. "We can't comment on customers plans."
I expected him to say that, but I figured I'd ask anyway. However, what he could tell me about was the advancements E Ink's technology, some of which of which will find their way into new devices as soon as this year. In the next few months the company will announce its next-generation e-ink platform for e-readers, the successor to Pearl. That screen, released in 2010, is the one used in most current e-ink readers, including the Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader.
The new platform will offer slightly improved contrast and better optical performance that's "better tuned to capabilities of higher-resolution TFT displays that are making their way into e-readers," Mancini said (the $169.99 Kobo Aura HD is an example of a high-resolution e-reader).
Also, and perhaps most importantly, the company has introduced new technology that reduces the amount of ghosting (the digital artifacts left behind as pages are turned), so you won't have to refresh the page as much. A lot of people don't like the flash a page refresh creates, and the new screens won't have to refresh as much. Today, the outer limit is around every six to seven page turns, and some devices now allow you to customize the frequency of page refreshes. Mancini said you'd potentially be able to read up to 100 pages without having the page flash.
"So, is it called Pearl 2?" I asked.
"It doesn't have a name we're sharing just yet," Mancini said. "But before the end of the year we expect to not only bring our technology to market but to have customers announce products with that technology."
What became clear as we talked was that since the technology was already mature, we wouldn't see a major jump from the current generation of Pearl to the new e-ink platform, whatever it ends up being called. He likened it a little bit to going from 1080p TVs to 4K TVs. Sometimes a display may be technically sharper, but that may be hard to discern.
"We're not getting to the limits of the technology," Mancini said. "We're getting to limits of what the eye can perceive."
In fact, as tablets and larger screen smartphones have eaten into the sales of dedicated e-readers, the company is trying to diversify, bringing e-ink technology to other devices (smartphones and watches, for example) and hopes supermarkets and other stores will adopt digital price tags that use low-powered e-ink displays that can be updated easily via computer. That would allow stores to adjust their pricing more quickly and frequently, which has helped generate more sales, according to Mancini (he offered some anecdotal evidence from a customer to back up that statement).
The company has managed to add some color to its technology. With those digital price tags, for instance, there will be a red e-ink option to help draw attention to sale items. And Mancini showed a prototype of a full-color e-ink display that had the same washed-out look of prototype Mirasol displays that Qualcomm had been showing at trade shows the last few years. So far, Qualcomm has yet to commercialize its Mirasol product -- it remains expensive, and while the technology is very energy efficient like e-ink, consumers have become too spoiled by the quality of standard LCD displays found in today's tablets and smartphones.
While bringing more color to its technology appears to be one of E Ink's priorities, as far as the e-reader market goes, Mancini seemed most excited by the company's large-format Mobius flexible-display technology, which is based on a plastic TFT technology Sony developed. The two companies partnered up, with Sony transferring the technology to E Ink for mass production.
The display is the size of a sheet of A4 paper (8.3x11.7 inches), which means you can look at a document and it will appear as it would on a piece of paper. Sony has developed a prototype for a 13.3-inch e-reader aimed at the business and education markets and has announced that it will begin selling the product later this year.
The key to flexible display technology is how light it is. Since it's plastic -- as opposed to glass -- it's obviously lighter, and you don't have to worry about the screen cracking (the protection layer can be thinner and lighter as a result). Mancini said the total weight of Sony's large-format e-reader is around 350 grams, or just over 12 ounces. The Kindle Paperwhite weighs 213 grams or 7.5 ounces. And the 9.7-inch (diagonal) Kindle DX, which Amazon recently began selling again, weighs in at 19.2 ounces. The smaller Kindle DX's screen measures 5.4x7.9 inches.
As you might, expect the Sony uses touch-screen technology and you'll be able to mark up pages using a stylus. It's unclear how much the product will cost, but I suspect it will be rather expensive -- at first, anyway.
Alas, for now E Ink will only be producing large flexible displays along with smaller ones designed for cell phones. Mancini showed me a prototype of the Onyx Boost Android-based e-ink smartphone that he said offered up to two months of battery life. It was sort of cool, but I have my doubts it's a viable product.
Mancini said he's seeing the e-reader market split into two segments, with E Ink's customers interested in creating inexpensive entry-level products and high-end models. "There's little in between," he said.
The long and short of it is that I expect we'll see some incremental improvements to mainstream e-readers this year -- and perhaps some price drops -- but we'll probably have to wait another year or longer before we see flexible display technology come to mainstream e-readers like Kindles, Kobos, Sony Readers, and Nooks (yes, Barnes & Noble has said it's continuing with its e-ink line of Nooks). Images of Sony's PRS-T3 Reader have already leaked online, and design-wise it appears to have the same dimensions as last year's Sony PRS-T2.
With the next e-ink Kindles, I expect to see some slight improvements to the design and some small performance gains, as well even more uniform lighting in the Paperwhite. And we may see an entry-level Kindle priced at $49 ($20 less than its current price). Just how much weight, if any, Amazon can shave off its e-ink Kindles remains unclear. But I know a lot of people who prefer the entry-level Kindle to the Paperwhite because it's lighter (5.98 vs. 7.5 ounces). An ounce and half doesn't seem like a lot of weight, but in a handheld device it's very noticeable.
Imagine a 6-inch e-reader that weighs just 3.5 ounces. That just might make you want to upgrade your device.