Matt Jones

Electronic Paper and the Betamax Tape

As technology companies compete with each other, drive manufacturing costs down and put their marketing machines on full power, it’s amazing how they can steer us away from technologies that are clearly better for specific tasks than others.

When Apple launched the iPad, it made a big deal about the new iBook store and the iPad’s use as an electronic reading device. Here’s the marketing blurb on Apple’s site…

Reading on iPad is just like reading a book. You hold your iPad like a book. You flip the pages like a book. And you do it all with your hands — just like a book. The high-resolution, LED-backlit screen displays each page beautifully.

The iPad is an astounding piece of technology in many ways, but a good device for spending hours reading electronic books does not count among them, because of the backlit LCD display is uses.

A few weeks ago, Samsung announced that it’s backing out of the electronic ink panel production, instead to concentrate on LCD displays for their dedicated reading devices. Also, there are rumours of a smaller, cheaper iPad which no doubt will be designed to take a take some of Amazon Kindle’s share of the eReader market. So, given the marketing power of Apple, and the likes of Samsung turning their back on the technology, the odds seem stacked against a bright future for electronic paper.

Electronic paper displays mimic the high resolution and reflective quality of ink on paper. Compared to LCD technology:

Of course, electronic ink displays aren’t with out their issues. They are restricted to monochrome for a start. Then there’s the glacially slow display refresh when interacting the device. For some people I’ve spoken to this is a barrier to buying a device; for that brief second, the device looks broken, and in our Jobsian world of user experience perfection, that will never do.

There’s the thorny issue of Digital Rights Management which seems to hang over the e-reader market like a grey cloud. I have issues with this but as this piece is about the merits of the display technology only, I’ll leave that for a future post.

There’s no argument that the iPad is a revolutionary device for consuming digital media, and its LCD display is ideal the multi-purpose nature of the device.

No doubt the next iteration of the iPad (and its rumoured smaller sibling) will have the much hyped ‘Retina Display’ but no matter much Jobs talks about pixel density, the reading experience will be inferior to that of  electronic paper simply because of the necessity for a backlight.