Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Squinting in the Sand

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 20, 2013 --  

The handheld computer's success has squashed the promise of e-paper.

As millions of people flock to the beaches for the prime month of basking, tech observers would be forgiven for thinking time was standing still. For all the rapid growth of smartphones and tablets for consuming media, the devices are rarely seen at the beach. When they are, it is in the face of squinting people desperately trying to block the blinding sun from the washed-out backlit LCD displays.

This is the problem that the e-paper was supposed to address. Seven years ago, when the Sony Reader was first sold at (now defunct) Borders Books outlets in the United States, its e-paper technology was designed to revolutionize reading. With tiny bubbles of moveable ink inside a flat display, e-paper displays look great in bright sun. And while a few people enjoying good read on the beach this summer are doing so with modern e-paper device like the Kindle Paperwhite, most do so with 5000-year-old papyrus technology.

Compared to the ubiquitous spread of tablets and smartphones, e-paper device sales have failed to catch on. Manufacturer E Ink Holdings reported this month that it expects sales of e-paper devices to be flat from last year, and its quarterly earnings down 46 percent from a year before.1 Last month, Barnes and Noble kicked out their CEO William Lynch (a former Palm executive) after losing $475 million in its Nook e-reader business.2 More recently, the company was forced to cut the price of its year-old Nook Simple Touch with Glow-Light from $120 to $100.3

Whatever happened to the promise of e-paper?

Part of the problem is that devices using the technology came out starting the same year as Apple released the iPhone as the first handheld computer with mass-market success. The class of devices that use this LCD touchscreen technology, including all Apple and Android phones and tablets, are extraordinarily versatile. They can be used to browse the web, watch movies, host video chats, play video games, and even read electronic books -- provided they aren't outside in the bright sun.

E-paper devices are great at solving the latter problem, but are largely unusable to perform the former tasks. Unless you are a real outdoor reading aficionado, are persnickety about the contrast of your text, or suffer eye strain issues, it just doesn't make sense to buy an e-reader for the relatively few times that you want to read outdoors.

What's more, the runaway success of LCD mobile devices has sucked the energy out of e-paper. While books are widely available and work pretty well on e-readers, only the largest newspapers are available on e-paper. And when they are, it is almost always in a stripped-down format that pales in comparison to the slick experience available on LCD mobile devices. That's because the runaway success of LCD mobile devices has led many newspapers to customize their editions with them in mind -- relying on scrolling interfaces that work terribly on e-paper devices.

As a result, e-paper devices have become little more than a niche market for geeky book aficionados, requiring those who want both a tablet experience and outdoor reading to carry two devices. So long as e-paper devices continue their trend toward low-price stocking stuffers, they may still yet enjoy mass-market success. Hybrid devices, perhaps consisting of an e-paper secondary display on a tablet cover could help spread adoption, too.

But the early success of Apple and Android mobile devices has ensured that e-paper devices will remain second class periodical readers for the foreseeable future. Newspapers and magazines have spent millions of dollars, despite sagging ad revenue, to create high-quality online editions for tablets and smartphones. It is hard to imagine them starting all over for e-paper devices -- just so people can read at the beach.

This is bad news for beach-bound news aficionados. They had better get used to squinting, or try hard to remember how to steady an old-fashioned broadsheet as it flaps in the breeze.

Related Web Columns:

The End of Paper, February 18, 2008


1. Tech Crunch, Reader Shipments To Be Flat This Year, August 16, 2013

2. Forbes, Barnes & Noble CEO Lynch Out After Nook Woes Deepen, July 8, 2013

3. Venture Beat, Barnes & Noble Drops Nook With Glowlight to $99 as It Preps for a Followup, August 18, 2013