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The future of the e-reader

Deepa Kurup
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Heard about the e-ink reader? Will it be patronised by the next generation of digital readers?

The year 2012 put a new spin on the e-books versus the traditional printed word debate. If the past few years saw speculative obituaries on books, as e-readers, running on dedicated reading devices, surging ahead, the past year witnessed the beginning of a new wave – the rise of the tablet. Sounding the warning bell for e-readers are a plethora of market surveys that are reporting a decline in e-readers shipments (IDC estimates the decline at 28 per cent in 2012) as well as registering a shift in consumer preferences. Take for instance, the Pew Research Center's 2012 survey: while in 2011 the tablet was playing catch up with e- readers, this trend was set in stone in 2012. While both gadgets grew, tablets surpassed the e-reader by six percentage points, compared to 2011. And there is no space for the gadget versus paper pulp debate here, for, clearly the numbers of respondents opting for devices rose from 18 to 33 per cent over the same period.

The rise of the tablet

The fact that e-reader manufacturers have also launched their own tablets only confirms this trend. Both the leading e-reader manufacturers, Amazon and Barnes and Nobles, have launched their own HD tablets, which are pitted against Apple's iPad (the Mini, in particular) and Google's Nexus on everything from features and functionality to price points. But is it really time to prepare our obits for the dedicated e-ink reader? There's a lot of charm left in the reader, not to mention the advantages starting with the fact that it's easy on the eye, closer to the look-and-feel of a book and offers longer battery life. But e-book makers are quickly realising that this may not be good enough for the next generation of digital readers. So, starting with Nook GlowLight in early 2012, most e-readers including Kindle and Kobo Glo upgraded their screens, and offered higher resolutions.

Future hinges on E-ink

Innovation, however, is not merely about getting slicker, faster or increasing appeal; an important part of innovation involves driving down price points and making the technology affordable to a wider section. This clearly hasn't happened with e-readers, at least not at the pace that it has happened in the case of its worthy opponent, the tablet. For, the proprietary technology for e-ink is held by E Ink Holdings Inc, a Taiwanese company that still supplies the monochromatic display units for most of the leading e-book readers. Incidentally, this company too has seen a very sharp decline in revenues. Worldwide, over the past 18 months, many companies that were seen betting big on this technology are phasing out their investments. Last year, two screen manufacturers who had promised disruptive technologies in this field, abandoned the idea of making screens for e-readers and tablets. Qualcomm, whose much-talked about Mirasol screens launched on select devices in Asia and South Korea, announced it is pulling out of manufacturing. Another promising player PlasticLogic, which also offered low power e-ink-like display screens, declared it was shifting its focus to industrial and commercial applications.

So, if e-readers were to be wiped out, it isn't that all will be lost for this technology. In fact, going by the buzz around this technology, it appears it's finding new applications for itself, such as on a wristwatch that makes for easy reading of time in bright light (as demoed at the recently-concluded CES 2013) or on public sign boards that will take up lesser power and are more durable than LCD displays. These advantages came to the fore in Japan during the 2010 tsunami where e-ink signboards, according to a Reuters report, displayed crucial emergency information when other LED-LCD displays ran out of power. Another e-ink product that's creating a buzz is Chinese phone maker Onyx's demoed prototype of an Android smartphone with e-ink display, its USP being week- long battery life. At CES a Russian company also demoed a dual-screen phone that allows you to toggle between the two options.

The India scene

The story is no different in India, where e-readers created a buzz in the market in 2010 when Indian OEMs got into the fray. Over 2011-2012, when tablets entered the market in a big way and price points dropped, many of them found the market for dedicated e-readers simply didn't exist. Rajesh K.S., who was part of the team that released Wink, by the technology wing of Kerala-based publishing house DC media, says the “Indian market took a huge hit”. “We started out early and optimistically, but before the ecosystem could grow tablets hit the market. In a market like India, price points are crucial and tablets were all-in-all devices so it became tough to compete.” Mr. Rajesh says most Indian OEMs have stopped manufacturing and though there's still a small niche market the numbers just aren't enough. Technology-wise, he points out that the tech behind the product was indeed tougher and more sophisticated compared to LCD/LED screens. “But E-ink Holdings held its monopoly over it for too long, and the kind of reverse engineering that ends up driving down price points drastically and flooding the market with multiple devices never happened.”

The advantages came to the fore in Japan during the 2010 tsunami where e-ink signboards, according to a Reuters report, displayed crucial emergency information when other LED-LCD displays ran out of power.

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