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Battle over e-book display alternatives heats up

Posted: 10 Mar 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:e-book? display? e-paper? LCD?

Until a recently, the biggest worry for E Ink, maker of the Vizplex technology used in Amazon's Kindle and a host of other e-book readers, was the many e-paper competitors looking to loosen its grip on the market. Then Steve Jobs announced Apple's iPad tablet, which uses a standard LCD display that sacrifices e-paper's readability and zero-power modes but offers higher refresh rates and full color.

Will consumers sacrifice "green" e-paper on the altar of fast color, relegating the nascent technology category to a niche? For the analysts who track the display market, the question is a page turner, and they're of a mixed mind on the likely conclusion.

E-paper displays can replace virtually any printed page with a nonvolatile image that is changed electronically. Beyond e-paper versions of books and periodicals, developers envision applications for blueprints, maps, shelf labels, signage, smart cards and even "skins" that cover your iPhone with changing patterns.

For green paper replacement, the e-paper display must retain its image without any energy being expended (called zero-power or bistable mode). That capability and the lack of a backlight requirement are how e-book readers maintain their long battery lifetimeswhich are sometimes measured in page turns, since energy is expended only when the displayed image changes. (LCDs, by contrast, run down a battery in a few hours, regardless of what is being displayed.)

The e-paper category today is dominated by e-books using E Ink's Vizplex display, which looks remarkably like a clean, white sheet of paper printed with black ink. "Vizplex is widely used today for its best-of-breed whiteness and because it is already being mass produced," said Gartner analyst Amy Tang, who tracks the e-paper market.

Most other bistable display technologies bounce ambient light off a highly reflective surface, making text look like it is written on a mirror. The paperlike appearance of E Ink's Vizplex is the result of bouncing ambient light off the same white and black pigments that are used in traditional inks; in the Vizplex, the pigments fill the charged microcapsules that form the display pixels.

E Ink's monochrome display (no color yet) commands at least a 20 percent price premium over other e-paper solutions. It handles page refreshes fast enough for menus, windows and simple animations, but it cannot display live video. About two dozen independent development efforts worldwide are working to address the Vizplex's shortcomings. But E Ink itself makes no apologies for its success.

Unique benefits
"All these competing technologies have something unique to offer," said E Ink marketing vice president Sri Peruvemba. "But in e-publishing applications, a great digital reading experience is key. Fast color is better suited for gaming than for reading."

Though Peruvemba has a point, there is concern that tablets like the iPad could topple the fortunes of the whole e-paper ecosystem. Display vendors, chip makers and OEMs have been holding their breath since Jobs' announcement, waiting to see how consumers react in March when Apple starts delivering.

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