"Electronic paper" has long been hyped as the future of newspapers and books, but products like e-books have been slow to take off. That may soon change, say executives involved in the pioneering technology.
While Internet companies are scanning libraries of books and making them available online, E Ink Corp., which emerged out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a decade ago, is seeing a surge in orders for its portable, foldable displays that mimic conventional paper to carry such books.
"Nine different companies launched products last year based on the technology," said Russell Wilcox, E Ink president. "In the last nine months we've gone from manufacturing tens of thousands of parts to millions of parts."
Among those products are Sony's Reader tablet, whose black-and-white displays can be read in bright sunlight or a dimly lit room from almost any angle — just like paper — without traditional back-lit screens that chew up power.
While the displays are becoming more flexible and conserve power, they face other limitations such as working only in monochrome and failing to display video — areas critical to attracting advertisers and consumers to the technology.
Wilcox said E Ink, whose revenues have grown at a rate of 200 to 300 percent annually in the last three years, is testing a color prototype that could be launched next year, potentially opening the technology to e-magazines and e-newspapers.
Underscoring its aspirations to mainstream media, the company's chairman is Kenneth Bronfin, president of the interactive media division of Hearst Corp., which publishes 12 daily newspapers and 19 magazines including Cosmopolitan.
E Ink holds more than 100 patents on its "electrophoretic" ink technology in which electric charges are sent along a grid embedded in the paper that cause tiny black and white particles to move up and down, creating text and images.
Motofone, Motorola Corp.'s low-cost mobile phone for the developing world, uses the technology because of its ability to conserve power, along with Seiko Epson Corp.'s wristwatch, a flash-memory stick and several other devices.
James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research, said E Ink needs the technological leap into color and ability to show video before it can reach the masses.
If it can achieve that, McQuivey said, E Ink could threaten to displace the cheap and ubiquitous liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), while revolutionizing how we think about reading.
Electronic billboards, for example, would no longer need to be bulky or costly to erect. They could be hung from just about any wall or folded into the back of a car for easy transport.
"It's so clearly apparent when you use the technology that it could revolutionize so many screens in our lives and it could put screens on things that don't have them but could or should," said McQuivey.
Another challenge for products like e-books is that the number of books available to download in the United States and Europe remains relatively small.
But Sony reckons that will change as consumers discover the ease of using one device that stores hundreds of titles, and as the Internet makes downloading easy.
"More and more things are going online from Amazon and others," said David Seperson, a product manager of Sony's Reader. "We're seeing real growth in digital text."
"Also there is a potential shift in what people would consider reading. It used to be mainly books. Now there are blogs. And there's all kinds of Internet things which will work well because you can take that stuff off the computer screen, and take it with you to the beach and start reading."