Flexible readers

By Chris Taylor

One product that already looks set to evolve out of all recognition is Plastic Logic's much-anticipated electronic reader, the Que, which the Mountain View, Calif., company plans to release in January 2010.

On the surface, much about the Que seems familiar. Like Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500)'s Kindle -- a $350 e-reader that has sold more than 500,000 units since its launch in 2007 -- the Que displays pages in grayscale E-Ink, designed to be easier on the eyes than conventional screen displays. Like the Kindle, the Que will allow users to download books and magazines wirelessly (via AT&T (T, Fortune 500); the Kindle uses Sprint (S, Fortune 500)). To counter Amazon's giant library of downloadable books, Plastic Logic has inked a deal with Barnes & Noble. It will also fetch digital versions of publications such as USA Today, for a subscription fee.

Like the iPhone, the Que features a single physical button that takes you to the home page. Instead of the Kindle's awkward keyboard and page forward/back buttons, it has a pop-up touch-screen keyboard and navigates pages with the flick of a finger.

But that's where the similarity to current e-readers ends. To see what's new about the Que, look under the hood: There's no silicon in the screen. All its transistors are made of plastic. This is the result of years of research by professors at the Cavendish Labs in Cambridge, England. Five years later this research yielded an e-reader that is fundamentally flexible, unlike the Kindle, with its breakable glass screen.

Soon after the company launched in 2007, CEO Richard Archuleta built an international organization. The research arm stayed in Cambridge, but every other business function was sent abroad: manufacturing moved to Dresden, Germany; assembly, to Taiwan; and headquarters, where most of the employees work, to Silicon Valley, the better to poach local talent.

"It's very easy to get engineers excited about joining this company," grins Archuleta, the former head of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500)'s notebook business.

Disappointingly, Plastic Logic has played it safe by encasing the flexible screen in a more rigid plastic case. "We did prototypes that were rigid on one end and floppy on another," says Anusha Nirmalananthan, Plastic Logic's product manager. "We found users had trouble getting used to that."

Still, the Que retains a significant "wow" factor. It is legal-paper size but weighs a mere pound, three ounces less than the comparable Kindle DX. Plastic Logic regularly drops the Que on concrete, and it survives. The battery will last for days on a single charge. Plug it into your computer and you can download any PDF or text file. The device can hold thousands of PDFs and tens of thousands of books.

Archuleta is pitching the Que squarely at business users. It will offer the ability to annotate documents. You can type on virtual sticky notes or draw on the screen. (The Kindle can do none of these things.) The Que's price point hadn't been announced at press time but will likely fall between $400 and $800.

That's too rich for some analysts. "The magic number for an e-reader is $199," insists Allen Weiner of Gartner Research.

Win or lose with the Que, Plastic Logic's research continues. It is developing color e-reader technology with a grant from the U.K. government. It hopes to launch a color Que in 2011. Archuleta has proposed a military application: a foldout map that could be wirelessly updated in the field.

"You will see bendable, foldable, rollable readers," he says. "Whatever the marketplace wants."

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