June 17, 2004 – You’ll have to try this as a thought experiment if you’re not in Japan: Imagine you’re reading this on a handheld device the size of a paperback book. The device looks like an over-sized Palm handheld, except the screen doesn’t glow. Instead, it reflects the light around you, like paper.
Would you switch to a handheld electronic device?
Sony Corp. is betting you will say yes. It unveiled a new e-book device in April in Japan, a move that once again will test the e-book idea.
The consumer electronics industry asked readers what they thought of e-book devices previously. The late 1990s technology frenzy led to e-book devices from RCA and GEMStar, the publisher of TV Guide, as well as various startups.
The majority of those e-book products are no longer manufactured. Adding insult to injury, Barnes & Noble shelved its sales of e-books — the digital content displayed on the devices — last year.
Analysts point to various reasons earlier types of e-book devices didn’t catch on. They were power hogs. You couldn’t read them outside due to glare. They were expensive.
Compared with the refined, time-proven, inexpensive form of the entrenched technology — regular books printed on paper — e-book devices just couldn’t compete. Books are portable, cheap and easy on the eyes.
You only have to pay for them once and you can read them as often as you like, or even lend them to others. And if you lose or destroy one you’re not out much money.
The new generation of e-book devices rectifies some of the problems. Sony’s LIBRIe and others, like the Sigma eBook announced by Panasonic, use “bi-stable” displays. Unlike conventional liquid crystal displays (LCDs), bi-stable displays only use electricity when they change their content. Or to put it another way, you only drain the batteries when you change the page.
Bi-stable displays also differ from LCDs in that they are reflective rather than emissive; the page reflects the light around you. They don’t have lighting built into the back or sides of the display.
Drawback: You can’t read anything in the dark. Benefit: You can read everything, even in bright sunshine. The lack of backlighting also saves power.
However, while the new devices might have solved some problems, they’re still expensive. Sony’s new e-book costs $395.
“Another problem with these is that they’re rigid,” said Kimberly Allen, director of technology and strategic resources for iSuppli/Stanford Resources, an El Segundo, Calif.-based research and analysis firm. “That really wasn’t corrected.”
Ultimately, e-book manufacturers might be constraining themselves by focusing too closely on mimicking the form of a book, according to Allen. “There are things a book can’t do, like animated graphics,” she said. “Imagine the freedom you could have.”
She said other Japanese manufacturers are also working on similar products but “it’s still a technology push as far as I can tell.”
There is also the opposite view — that high tech will allow e-books to be more like regular books: cheap, rugged, simple. For that, e-books may have to wait until electronic ink displays are mated with flexible electronics.
A Philips subsidiary, Polymer Vision, announced just such a display prototype earlier this year. When it can get that product out the door at $20 a pop, good old-fashioned paper might finally have a worthy challenger.