Three years ago e-readers seemed to embrace new technology and give customers a reason to update their devices. In 2011 and 2012 we saw high resolution displays, color e-paper and the ability to read in the dark with front-lit screens. The constant innovation was directly attributed to the sheer amount of e-readers shipped between 2010 and 2012. Why the lack of innovation? e Ink, the largest company devoted to e-paper screen technology has become complacent.
e-reader orders from companies like Amazon, Kobo, Sony and B&N have fell in the last few years. Total sales in 2013 were 13 million units vs 2012 where 14.9 million were sold. The largest boom period was in 2011 with 23.2 million units were shipped worldwide.
The decline of e-reader sales were partly attributed to the consolidation of the industry. Indie companies such as Cool-ER, Entourage, iRex, Pandigital, Colby and many others went out of business. Bookeen, Ectaco, Icarus, Onyx, Pocketbook Wexler and others still exist, but they manufacture way less products. Major players in the industry such as Sony have scaled back on production and abandoned the North American market altogether. Barnes and Noble has seen almost one billion dollars of loss on their e-reader endeavor and is a non-factor in the industry. Amazon and Kobo are the only big players left in the game.
The other primary factor responsible for the decline of e-readers is the lack of innovation from e Ink. The company has become complacent, only releasing incremental updates and has a bloated portfolio of old technology. They are simply not investing in the future of e-readers and are clinging to old technology. The last major thing they developed was Triton, a color e-paper solution. Only two companies ever bought into this technology and it basically went nowhere.
The current generation of products that e Ink is actively marketing is Carta and Mobius. Basically the technologies main benefits are better contrast, more lightweight and higher resolution. Hardly gamechangers.
80% of e Inks revenue still derives from e-reader screen sales, but most of their focus is on digital signage. They are incorporating the essence of their technology into airport, luggage, clocks, watches and grocery labels. Instead of developing next generation e-reader tech, they are spreading themselves too thin, at the expense of their core market.
The lack of innovation from e Ink is forcing their main partners to look at other avenues. Amazon purchased Liquavista from Samsung last year, and is rumored to be using color e-paper in future Kindles and tablets.
I appreciate what companies like e Ink and Neonode have done for the e-reader industry. Without them, we would not have the long-battery life and easy to read devices we sometimes take for granted. e Ink as a company is one of the easiest to approach and always have time to talk to the media. It just feels like the world is passing them by and they have lost the disruptive spirit that had in 2010 and 2011.
There are a few things I would recommend for e Ink in order to continue to stay relevant and start to innovative again. I would purchase Pixel QI, they have patents and have not been active since 2012, when Mary Lou Jepsen got hired at Google. There tech is a bit outdated by today’s standards, but they have hundreds of deals with government, military, and Chinese smartphone and tablet companies. I would also purchase Plastic Logic, a company that is at a crossroads of identity. They have RND in California and the UK, with a factory in Dresden. They have been doing excelled prototypes with secondary screens for cell phones and paperthin screens that have loads of potential. It is basically about acquiring patents and assimilating new talent. e Ink could do amazing things with executive John Ryan from Pixel QI and the RND team at Plastic Logic. It would inject a burst of creativity and open new markets for them. It might not change the game with e-readers, but it would allow them to survive the coming storm.
Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times.