Ask any Kobo, Kindle or nook user why they prefer their ereader over a tablet and chances are they’ll cite the screen.
Whichever brand your ereader carries it’s almost guaranteed to include an e-ink screen from E Ink Corporation which, as I mentioned in my recent Kobo Touch review, offers a high contrast reading experience even in direct sunlight.
Last month I caught up with Sri Peruvemba, E Ink’s Chief Marketing Officer, to talk about their future plans and got a look at some other uses for the company’s flagship product.
Peruvemba started our discussion by telling me that E Ink’s partnerships with the biggest names in ebook retailing means it has “anywhere between 95 and 99% of the market” for dedicated ereader screens.
And despite even e-ink champions like Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble now also offering LCD tablets to compete with the iPad, Peruvemba says his marketshare is “growing steadily”.
He adds that E Ink’s ownership of Hydis Technologies – creators of the Fringe Field Switching LCD technology – means they’re also in “pretty much all of the tablets” through licensing agreements.
This means the company stands to win even if sales of e-ink based devices slide as tablets displace them. It’s presented to me as a win-win situation.
But despite the revenues e-ink’s holding company makes from tablet sales Peruvemba doesn’t miss the chance to talk up his product’s perceived superiority over LCD.
Accepting that tablets “are great entertainment devices” he insists that the majority of people who “attempt to read books on tablets…don’t enjoy the reading experience.”
“To read a book printed paper is still one of the best [ways], followed by our e-paper technology which is pretty close.”
Peruvemba says the company is close to matching its original ambition to “replace printed paper” and says it has a new screen in the works which offers 300dpi versus the 167dpi of current screens.
As well as ever better image quality, E Ink’s partners have been asking it for colour displays.
A 16 shade demo device he shows me offers some fairly washed out colours which might be fine for tables and basic diagrams but, in my opinion, is a long way from troubling LCD when it comes to displaying magazines and comics.
Peruvemba accepts my criticisms of the colour levels but says they’re already working on improvements.
They’re also in “mass production” of flexible (think plastic rulers, not paper scrolls) displays which he says can be combined with colour to make a dedicated “textbook application” for the education market.
And with some countries restricting pupils to “fifteen minutes” reading on a tablet in order to protect their eyes, the education sector is one which could offer the company and its partners rich pickings.
As well as the obvious cost advantage in opting for dedicated devices over the likes of Apple’s iPad, Peruvemba says the single purpose nature of the devices means “the kids are not distracted by watching videos or playing games, the only bad habit they can form is called reading”.
But while a focus on the education market is an obvious extension of ereaders for consumers, e-ink is also popping up in new areas including other consumer goods and industry solutions.
Alongside the more obvious – tablet devices which can be used to access and update records – are more novel uses such as watch screens, shelf labelling and indicators and display advertising.
Because e-ink ‘locks’ to the last screen refresh without drawing more power the potential exists for train and bus operators to offer the technology to advertisers, reducing their paper use.
Other potential uses include shelf-edge displays in supermarkets, allowing retailers to update prices without laboriously swapping price tickets and shelf barkers.
And back in the consumer space Peruvemba demos a debit card with an e-ink strip which could be used to provide an authorisation code for every online transaction, similar to how some banks send these by SMS today.
It’s clear there are some potentially very exciting uses for e-ink but with patent litigation now such a huge part of the technology sector, I asked how confident the firm was it that it could defend its ground.
“So far it’s not been the patents that have held people back, it’s the fact that no-one has been able to get the performance that we have. Patents is something to worry about later but we do have very strong patents.
“When the epaper business started about 10 or 12 companies all jumped in on the act, and E Ink made progress by being able to actually produce. In general I think the market is at least 1 or 2 years behind us.”