People started paying attention to to the e-reader industry in 2007 when Amazon released the Kindle. The industry exploded in the ensuing years and many other companies started to make their own models, with varying degrees of success. There are a few different companies that have been at the forefront of the e-reading revolution and today we are going to look at some of the most pivotal moments in history.
E-Ink has been at the forefront of the e-reader revolution and there have only been a few models that used different kinds of e-paper. The most notable was the Wexler Flex One out of Russia that used an LG display and the Kyobo, which used Mirasol color e-paper and was only sold in South Korea. E-Ink has released Vizplex in 2007, which was what the Kindle used for many years. In 2010 E-Ink released Pearl and many other companies entered the e-reader space. It offered a higher contrast screen built with E Ink Pearl imaging film. The first e-reader to incorporate this new technology was the Amazon Kindle DX and the Kindle Keyboard, Kindle 4, and Kindle Touch also incorporate the Pearl display. Amazon still uses this display, in all of the Kindles except the Voyage and Oasis. Other notable companies that gravitated towards Pearl was Sony with their Reader Touch edition. Nook Simple Touch, Kobo eReader Touch, Kobo Glo, Onyx Boox M90 and Pocketbook Touch also employed Pearl.
Also in 2010 was the creation of the first colored e-paper, Triton. It was able to display 4,096 colors, but few companies pulled the trigger to release a commercially viable e-reader. The Hanvon color e-reader, Ectaco JetBook Color and PocketBook Color. In 2013 E-Ink released Triton 2, but only Ectaco and Pocketbook released e-readers, soon after that Ectaco suspended making e-readers due to dismal sales.
E-Ink Carta changed the landscape in 2013 which allowed readers to have higher resolution and less full page refreshing. Carta allowed e-reader companies to optimize their Linux software to have a full page refresh occur every six or 12 pages, instead of every page. This allowed Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and other players to implement gesture based carousel images in their digital bookstores. The secret behind the success of Carta was the support of Regal waveform technology.
Also in 2013 was the creation E-Ink Mobius, which was co-developed by Sony. The big hyping factor behind this screen was that it finally broke the 9.7 inch barrier to display A4 sized screens. Sony had a six month exclusive period in which the only e-reader that used it was the Digital Paper DPT-S1. Once this period elapsed Pocketbook began development on the CAD and Good e-Reader and Onyx also launched competing products.
Carta HD was quietly introduced in 2014 and almost all modern e-readers use this display technology. Amazon uses it in their flagship products, such as the Oasis and Voyage. The Kobo Aura One and Kobo Aura H20 Edition 2 also employ it. Other companies such as Bookeen, Energy Sistem, Pocketbook, Onyx Boox, Icarus and Tolino all use it.
The first truly waterproof e-reader was the Kobo Aura H2o that was released in 2014. It featured a 6.8 inch screen and used E-Ink Carta. It was the first model that you could take the beach or read in the bathtub, it was also dustproof. This was the most successful e-reader that Kobo ever made and they couldn’t keep it in stock to enough to meet demand. Eventually Barnes and Noble waterproofed the Nook and Tolino started to offer it in future products. Not many other other companies decided that a water proof e-readers were worth the added cost, although Pocketbook did modestly well with the Aqua.
Simply, a frontlit display is lit from in front of the display, as opposed to from behind. That sounds pretty straightforward, until you realize that the backlit screens on our phones and laptops and TVs display light by shining a bunch of LED lights directly into your eyes. It’s beautiful, but the light coming directly at your eyes gets uncomfortable after a while. By directing the light at the display itself—instead of at your face—frontlit devices save your peepers from a lot of unnecessary strain. Basically e-readers use small LED lights on the bottom of the bezel and project light upwards, although some of the them have the lights mounted on the top of the bezel and project it downwards, from my experience having the lights on the bottom provides users with a better reading experience.
The first e-reader to use a front-lit display was the Sony PRS-700 back in 2008. Then again, it also cost $400 and was mind-achingly terrible. There were four lights mounted on each side of the bezel and the e-reader used a different translucent layer that adds both the touch screen and side light functions. Needless to say this was a commercial failure.
Front-lit technology was tried again in April 2012 with the advent of the Barnes and Noble Nook Simple Touch for $139. The prime selling point behind this model was the front-lit technology. Nook refined this technology by packing 8 LED lights at the top of the screen and eliminated the need for a reading light when reading in the dark. I reviewed this model and found that the screen was blue, although it was lightyears ahead of Sony. Amazon refined front-lit displays the same here with the Kindle Paperwhite, which quickly became the most successful e-reader the company ever made and is refreshed almost every year with small incremental upgrades. Amazon was the company that got front-lit displays right, the lighting system was white, instead of having blueish hues. Almost every other e-reader company in the game started implementing a front-lit display in all of their models.
The front-lit industry stagnated for many years, until Kobo released the Aura One in 2016. The Aura One is the first Kobo product that has a dedicated nighttime reading mode. This is supposed to make e-reading before bed less detrimental to your sleep patterns. Researchers have found that blue light suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin more than any other light, so staring at an artificially lit screen at night can make falling asleep more difficult.
Aura One lighting system holds a world record of the most LED lights on an e-reader. Few are touting this fact, but the Aura One has 17 LEDs lighting up its 7.8″ screen – 9 white LEDs and 8 more RGB LED, for the night reading mode.
Kobo used a light sensor to automatically scale the green to the RGB color spectrum depending on the lighting environment. Kobo certainly isn’t the first company to have an ambient light sensor, that distinction goes to Amazon.
The Mirasol Failure
Mirasol spent almost four years developing its screen technology, which was an alternative to Pixel QI and Color e-Paper. It was based on IMOD (Interferometric MODulation), with MEMS structures at its core. This MEMS-based innovation is bistable & highly reflective, meaning the display itself can be seen in direct sunlight. It saw many products reach South Korea and Asia, but never took off in North America. What went wrong with the screens?
Mirasol screen technology was developed to draw less power and be viewable in direct sunlight. Qualcomm had grand ambitions to usher in a new era of smartphone, tablet, and e-reader screens. The company spent almost 1 billion dollars on a dedicated factory in Taiwan to produce the screens. Unfortunately, there were only four companies in Asia that bought into what Mirasol was selling: Hanvon, Bambook, Kyobo, and Koobe Jin Yong. All of these devices ran on the Google Android operating system and were very unique in the marketplace. Sadly, all of these e-readers/tablets suspended production and are no longer being made or marketed.
Qualcomm was estimated to have lost close to 300 million dollars in 2012 due to the Mirasol fiasco. The company announced a few months ago that it was abandoning the technology in its current form. “We are now focusing on licensing our next-generation Mirasol display technology and will directly commercialize only certain Mirasol products,” said Chief Executive Paul Jacobs Wednesday in a conference call with analysts. “We believe this strategy will better align our updated road map with the addressable opportunities.”
So what went wrong? Mirasol screens were only able to produce 60 Hz video, which quickly drained the battery. When we reviewed the Kyobo e-Reader, we noticed that colors looked washed out. There simply isn’t an interest from large scale companies like LG, Samsung, Motorola, and HTC to use unproven screens with their phones and tablets. Samsung spends a ridiculous amount of money on developing its own screens and purchased Liquavista for its electrowetting display, but could not do anything with it and sold it to Amazon.
The future looks bright for the e-reader industry as a whole. Some very interesting new technologies should be commercially available in the next few years.
In early 2017 Japan Display developed a new 600 PPI display that will allow future e-readers to have double the resolution of existing models. The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, Voyage, and Oasis have 300 PPI with a resolution of 1440 x 1080 pixels.
E Ink Holdings and Japan Displays formed a partnership last year and the two sides have been working on this 600 PPI screen for six months. Japan Display says that the WXGA or full HD displays are just as sharp as the screens used for high-end smartphones.
“Our strong partnership with E Ink allows us to strategically broaden our business into new markets beyond LCDs,” said Kazuhiro Ogawa, vice president at JDI. “E Ink’s low-power, highly-readable e-paper technology presents an exciting opportunity for JDI to expand the development of e-paper displays with built-in LTPS backplanes, opening the doors to new opportunities not only for both companies, but more importantly for our innovative customers.”
The other interesting e-paper advancement on the horizon is ACEP, which stands for Advanced Color ePaper. It was announced in early 2016 and features a high quality, full color reflective display. For the first time ever, an electrophoretic display (EPD) can produce full color at every pixel without the use of a color filter array. It can display over 32,000 different colors and has a resolution of 1600 x 2500 pixels and 150 PPI.
ACeP achieves a full color gamut, including all eight primary colors, using only colored pigments. The display utilizes a single layer of electrophoretic fluid, which is controlled using voltages compatible with commercial TFT backplanes. The fluid can be incorporated into either microcapsule or Microcup structures. The richness of the colors is achieved by having all the colored pigments in every picture element (pixel) rather than the side-by-side pixel colors achieved with a CFA. This eliminates the light attenuation, which can be quite significant. Like regular E Ink ePaper, ACeP maintains the ultra-low-power and paperlike readability under all lighting conditions.
In developing ACeP, E Ink researchers solved the very complex problem of how to get reflective color at every pixel in a commercially viable structure. Other approaches have utilized stacked backplane structures that are complex, difficult to manufacture and costly. The E Ink approach utilizes only a single backplane. Many materials and waveform inventions were required to independently control the position of the multiple color pigments.
So far the ACEP technology was relegated for digital signage, but E Ink told me on the record that it will be available for mass production in the e-reader space sometime in 2018. One of the challenges was to get the screen working with E Ink Regal Waveform technology and Freescale processors. This is critically important because page turns have to be quick and to solve any ghosting problems.
I have been covering the e-reader industry since 2007, which is the same year the original Kindle came out. The one thing I can see is future trends and I knew that the Kindle would usher in a new era of digital reading and this really excited me. I have seen the rise of Barnes and Noble and Kobo and have witnessed their trials and tribulations.
I guess the one thing I have noticed with e-readers is that they started out fringe, only serious readers and early adopters knew about them. They became really popular from 2009 to 2013 and then the industry crashed and many companies started to go out of business. Here are a few of my observations that contributed to the decline in e-reader and e-book sales.
a) e-Reader companies do not innovate like smartphone and tablet companies do, there is little reason to upgrade every few years.
b) Agency pricing was introduced. e-Books that used to sell for $9.99 and now cost $15.99 or more. Amazon trained an entire generation of readers that nine bucks was the magical prince point and were willing to take a loss by securing dominant market position. When Apple was going to launch the iBookstore they convinced all of the head honchos at the largest publishing companies to standardize e-book pricing. The DOJ laid the smackdown on that train of thought and publishers started to dictate the price of e-books, rather than let the retailers determine the final price.
c) The public library has become a digital refuge for millions of people and companies like Overdrive, 3M, B&T and Hoopla have all cashed in. Overdrive has an exclusive agreement with Amazon to deliver e-books directly to your Kindle and Kobo has built in Overdrive functionality on the Aura One. All other e-readers can employ Adobe Digital Editions to copy library books over.
d) Piracy is running rampant and digital watermarks do not have any market share outside of Europe. The publishing industry is unconcerned about it in North America.
My intention with this article is to give you a small history lesson on e-paper and the e-reader revolution. Freescale has played a huge part in the evolution of digital reading and you can read an interview I did with the head of the IMX6 and IMX7 product line HERE.
Michael Kozlowski has written about audiobooks and e-readers for the past twelve years. Newspapers and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times have picked up his articles. He Lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.