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The future of electronic paper – a flawed vision?

Electronic paper, and e-book Readers are all based on a pretty cool technology that is truly something you have to see to believe. E Ink is the brand name manufactured by E Ink Corporation and it really does look like paper. The first time you see it you realize that it has a completely different feel to it than your standard LCD display. You can check out an E Ink display at the Sony store or anywhere that sells E Ink based readers.

Lately E Ink has been getting a lot of press. Earlier this month Esquire showed off the worlds first ever E Ink magazine cover. This brought visions of the science fiction film Minority Report to many people and an environmental disaster in the making for others. There are also many e-readers being released with iRex to introduce a 10.2-inch E Ink reader next week. Although I love the technology, I think the current vision of E Ink by the press and blog sphere is somewhat flawed.

Minority Report e-paper

Minority report animated paper

Every where I read about E Ink I hear things like “Will this replace paper” and “This will allow for a more print / newspaper friendly layout”. These are all flawed concepts to me. It reminds me of other great technological advances like “Will the TV replace radio” or “Will the Internet replace TV”. Yes some of these technologies merged and can be used over the Internet, but no technology replaced the other. We still listen to the radio, whether it is satalite radio in our car, FM, or streaming radio, and we all certainly still watch television. We also use the web in the way it was envisioned also.

The grid

My art teacher would shoot me for saying this as she felt that the failure to adhere to a print like grid was a major failing of the web. I on the other hand believe it is a major advancement, I really hope that we don’t resort back to old fashioned print style layouts. This was done on paper because there was a finite amount of space and paper costs money so you have to use it all up. Writing content to fit little boxes isn’t fun. Anyone who has had to create print style web layouts knows this, it usually doesn’t work. The wonderful thing about a digital display is that you have a liquid medium and unlimited paper. The text can be as long as you want and flow around images and boxes according to font size or display type. With CSS you even have the power to display the content in different formats, independent from the layout. This allows web designers to support many different platforms, and make sites usable for the visually impaired.

If e-readers do take off, and I think they will, I really hope that print changes to be more like the web, and not the other way around, it’s a far more flexable approch. It’s also only a matter of time before touch sensitive E Ink displays will be the norm, why lock it down to old fashioned design principals. Will I even have to click/touch my way to page 5 to continue the story? Maybe we can even add E Mess to the reader itself so that when you hold your reader for a long time your fingers become all soiled just like with a real newspaper.

A land fill nightmare, why?

LandfillWhile everyone was praising Esquire for bringing magazines into the 21st century did anyone stop to think of the environmental implications? This is a little more serious than my first grip; why do we have this disposable attitude towards everything? Here we have this fantastic reusable technology, but we want to turn it into a throw away medium? Don’t we have enough garbage clogging the landfills already. I know we can recycle newspapers, but I’m not so sure about E Ink, and recycling costs a lot of money. Why bother when we can just re-use the technology. Once everyone has an e-reader they can just wirelessly download their favourite newspaper.

If papers had to stay old fashioned with their multi-columned mess, companies could even deliver content in multiple formats. Lets hope that every time we read a newpaper or magazine in the future we are not dropping batteries by the boatload into our garbage cans as we step off the subway for work. It should be about reusability, not a throw away technology.


The cost is the last major hurdle. Right now really popular readers cost anywhere from 300 to 1000 dollars. This is just too much for the average Joe. The new 10.2 inch iRex reader to be released next week clocks in at $850 for the high end model with Wi-fi, Bluetooth and 3G. Couple that with the fact that a lot of people don’t even get through a book a month and the cost of buying physical books is still a lot cheaper.

E-readers will have to get a lot more competitive or offer features that we can’t live without. Right now the average smartphone / laptop can do everything an e-reader can do, and in colour. The only real advantages an e-reader has is a screen that can be seen in bright daylight and long battery life, not enough for a lot of people, but if you read lots of books it can be worth it. I think back to breaking my back with college and university books; an e-reader would have come in handy back then.

The future is electronic paper

That said I do think the future is in electronic paper. Like any technology it is still in its infancy. Some day in the near future refresh rates which are pretty slow right now will be faster and the technology will be available in colour as E Ink has already demonstrated. I could even see monitors switching to this technology someday.

3 Comments to “The future of electronic paper – a flawed vision?”

  • Thad McIlroy

    There’s no question that ePaper is a fascinating technology, and E-Ink has created the leading brand (thus far). I posted a blog entry about Esquire’s questionable use of this technology here. As you acknowledge Esquire’s effort falls quite a bit short in the “environmentally-friendly” department. And the battery powering the cover will die in 90 days, making this something short of a collectible.

    The larger issue around eBooks is, I think, encompassed by my 17th law of the future of publishing: “There is a limit to the number of separate digital devices people want to carry. That limit is one.”

  • Ian Hoar

    Great article, the NYTimes article although giving a glowing overview of the new technology, really illustrates how labour intensive this magazine was to produce. It seems silly when you could deliver an entire animated magazine to millions via the Internet with very little waste or environmental impact.

    I totally agree with the carrying one device law. I have an iPhone, and it is my only carried gadget. I can read e-books, RSS feeds, surf the web, check email and play games. On top of that it’s a phone! It does everything I need.