Taking a page out of the e-book

Ink on cellulose is so last century - at least according to those working to make e-paper a reality.

By Chris Morrison, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Back in 2000, the handheld electronic book was thought to be as much a part of the future as MP3s, broadband video, and ad-supported websites. That year, Forrester Research predicted $251 million in sales of e-book content by 2005. It seemed a modest goal, but today the market is so small that Forrester doesn't even track it. Held back by a lack of available titles and stifling copy protection, the e-book reader gathered dust while other dotcom-era innovations flourished.

But one part of the stalled e-book industry could yet surprise us: electronic paper. At the forefront of the technology is E-Ink, a company spun off from MIT in 1997. E-Ink's thin film display functions as a screen and looks much more natural than its LCD counterparts. Instead of using standard pixels, e-paper contains millions of microcapsules that change color when an electric charge is sent through them - mimicking the look of real ink on real paper, without any backlight to hurt your eyes. The power required is negligible.

Right now e-paper is still married to bulky devices like the Sony Reader and the Motorola MotoFone, which use e-paper in their displays. But in the next three years, according to E-Ink, e-paper will become untethered. E-Ink customers like Samsung and LG Philips have already created 14-inch color displays nearly as thin as a piece of paper.

E-paper's success, says Lawrence Gasman, principal analyst at tech research firm NanoMarkets, "depends not so much on the technology as on designers coming up with cool stuff." In 2008, for example, U.K.-based Polymer Vision will launch the Readius, a mobile device with a flexible 5-inch e-paper display that unfurls like a scroll.

By 2010, look for stand-alone e-paper that plugs into your laptop to update its content. Eventually e-paper could display video and contain tiny Wi-Fi chips to update itself on the go. (E-Ink has demonstrated paper with limited Internet connectivity.)

If that makes you think of the moving, self-updating newspaper featured in the movie Minority Report, you're on the right track, says Kenneth Bronfin, president of interactive media for Hearst and chairman of E-Ink's board of directors. "The dollar you pay for your newspaper doesn't even pay the printing costs," he says. "If there was a device that newspapers could give consumers to eliminate the printing cost, the economics could really work." Sign up for a two-year subscription to an e-paper, he suggests, and you might get the device for free. E-Ink's profit in such a venture would be more than paper-thin.  Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.