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Is the e-reader running out of ink?

Deepa Kurup
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The rise of the tablet has resulted in a fall in demand for dedicated reading devices

The future?Even if e-readers are wiped out, it isn’t that all will be lost for the technology. In fact, going by the buzz around it, it appears that it’s finding new applications such as on public signboards that take up less power and are more durable than LCD displays.— file photo: AFP
The future?Even if e-readers are wiped out, it isn’t that all will be lost for the technology. In fact, going by the buzz around it, it appears that it’s finding new applications such as on public signboards that take up less power and are more durable than LCD displays.— file photo: AFP

The year 2012 put a new spin on the e-books versus the printed word debate. If the past few years saw speculative obituaries on books, as e-readers running on dedicated reading devices surged 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-reader 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 mid-2012. While both gadgets grew, tablets surpassed the e-reader by six percentage points in the latter half of 2012. And there’s no space for the gadget versus paper pulp debate here as the number of respondents opting for devices rose from 18 per cent 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&Noble, have launched their own HD tablets, which are pitted against Apple’s iPad, particularly the mini, 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 revenue.

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, 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 signboards that take up less 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 manufacturer Onyx’s demoed prototype of an Android smartphone with e-ink display, its USP being weeklong battery life. At CES, a Russian company also demoed a dual-screen phone that allows you to toggle between the two options.

The scene in India

The story is no different in India, where e-readers created a buzz in the market in 2010 when Indian original equipment manufacturers (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 technology 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.”

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