Thursday, September 4, 2008

Esquire and E-paper

If the newspaper business follows, technologically, the changes that cell phones have brought to the telephone business, or that the iPod has brought to the music business, then what we're waiting for is the iPod of news—an electronic device with all the portability and convenience of a printed newspaper, capable of receiving news and other content wirelessly and displaying it anywhere. The right gizmo could rapidly supplant the delivery of printed newspapers, the protestations of press barons notwithstanding.

That's been one of the hopes for the "electronic paper" substrate developed by the E Ink Corporation of Cambridge, MA, which grew out of the early research at the M.I.T. Media Lab I described a few days ago. It's an electronic display that differs critically from the standard backlit computer or cellphone screen, in that it has the look of paper, a finer resolution than standard screens, and is read by reflected light. This makes it easier to read and less tiring to the eye. And since it uses battery power only when the image changes, devices that use it can go much longer between recharges.

While E Ink's e-paper (they call it Electronic Paper Display or EPD) has been used in devices like Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader, its real promise may lie in the fact that it can be produced in a thin, flexible, paperlike format. Flexible EPD gets its first major test and exposure this month on the cover of Esquire magazine's 75th anniversary issue (100,000 newsstand copies only), which will have an EPD cover that will feature a dynamic display powered by an imbedded chip and battery. (A nice complete explanation of the technology is here on FolioMag.)

It's not surprising that the rollout, several years in the making (and made possible by an ad for the Ford Flex crossover SUV) is in a magazine owned by the Hearst Corporation, which is an investor in E Ink. Hearst is also a major newspaper owner, and is undoubtedly looking at the promise and the possibilities of EPD for all of its publications. In fact, Hearst has reportedly obtained a one-year exclusive contract to use EPD in its products.

The Esquire cover is likely to feature a relatively simple changing display, like the early blinking ads on web sites. But despite a bit a flak from the green community, Hearst will certainly want to take this further—for example, imagine a multi-page EPD book with the same content capabilities as the Kindle or the Sony Reader. Or to imagine your morning newspaper delivered not with a thud on your front porch, but electronically to a sheet of EPD you that can roll up, take into the loo, or to Starbucks, or along on your commute, changing the page your viewing with a simple control on the edge, and reusable indefinitely for future editions. A test of such a system was rumored in Seattle last year. Hearst denied the plan, but it has to be in the range of possibilities they are exploring with E Ink.

That's good news. While the Kindle (which seems to have gained more traction than the Sony Reader) has both detractors and admirers, it's not the "iPod of news"—yet. The potential for e-paper displays has barely been scratched. (One wonders, for example, why gas station chains still change prices via the 19th-century manual technique of flipping numeral cards on the pumps, when an e-paper display would allow them to do it from a centrally located computer at the same time they change the price locked into the pump's electronics. E Ink does have products aimed at the sign industry.)

In any event, we'll be keeping a close watch on developments in this technology. In upcoming posts, we'll visit in greater depth the news delivery potential of the Kindle and Sony Reader, as well as the European entry in this race, the Iliad reader produced by iRex Technologies, which resulted from a collaboration between E Ink and Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands.

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