Giz Explains: Why There Isn't a Perfect Ebook ReaderS

Amazon's Kindle 2, announced on Monday, is the probably the best ebook reader you can buy. But neither it, nor any other reader out there, will be converting the masses anytime soon. Here's why:

The Current State of Suck
Amazon will sell a lot of Kindle 2s. If they can keep up with demand this time, they'll sell more than the original Kindle, supposedly now in the hands of 500,000 people. But it's still not the breakthrough reader, the one that will dramatically overturn and recreate the literary market.

People call it the "iPod of books," and in some senses that's true. The first iPods didn't overturn any market. They were just marginally better than their competitors, but they were limited to Mac users only, had mechanical scroll wheels and were easily damaged.

Desire for the original iPod is like desire for the Kindles—it reveals that there is a very real mass of people who do want this kind of device. But getting from the original iPod to the hottest new models may prove to be an easier journey than going from these original Kindles (and Sony Readers) to the perfect reading device, primarily because of display technology—readers are, after all, designed for the singular purpose of displaying content that's easy on the eyes. As of now, there are two display camps—electronic paper and LCD—and both have far too many compromises at the moment to be adequate for a reading revolution.

E-Ink vs LCD
Most readers, including Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader, use a type of electronic paper called E-Ink. These displays are known scientifically as electrophoretic, and involve the arrangement of pixels on a screen like you would draw on an Etch-a-Sketch. That is, energy is used to sketch, but once the pixels are in place, they stay in place without demanding power.

E-Ink differs from the LCD screen you're likely reading this on (unless you subscribe to Giz's new Kindle feed) in that it's not backlit. Like legitimate paper, it must be held under a light source, but proponents say that's easier on the eyes. You're not staring at any rapidly flickering light bulb, just calm black pixels on a grayish background.

And because E-Ink only uses power to change pages or images, but not to display a given page, E-Ink-based electronics can run for days without recharging. The problem with that E-Ink is expensive, slow (you can't have moving cursors or any kind of video) and boring. No color, crummy contrast, crappy resolution. Though reading actual text in good light is pleasant, the limitations of E-Ink are painfully obvious to even the least-techie of users.

Standard LCDs on your computer or an ebook-friendly smartphone aren't any better. They could be too small, and if they're not too small, they require too much power to run for any prolonged length of time. (E-Ink can go for days—getting a single day out of any LCD device would be a coup.) Above all, it's just not a comfortable display to read on—sure you might stare at a monitor eight hours a day, but no one wants to read a novel on a glowing, constantly refreshing screen when they're lying in bed, trying to relax. It's doable, sure, but make no mistake, it's a harsher experience.

The Dimly Lit Future
So what's next? Plastic Logic presents the rosiest picture of the future of electronic paper displays, a perfectly-sized flexible plastic touchscreen that's basically all E-Ink display, plus Wi-Fi.

I talked to Time Magazine's Josh Quittner, who's <a href="been intently researching readers, and he loves the device. The problem, he says, is that it's both too innovative and too slow—it's made entirely of plastic, even the transistors, requiring brand new fabs to produce it. So not only will the initial version will be expensive as hell, with a 10.7" screen, but it'll be standard black on gray. Color, which E-Ink has developed in the lab, won't be coming out until 2011—possibly too late. Not even God knows what the market will be like in 2011—try to imagine what you thought cellphones would be like in 2008 from back in 2006.

Mary Lou Jepsen—who designed the XO Laptop's breakthrough reflective LCD screen and her new company, Pixel Qi, are reinventing the LCD again, and their display, if it lives up to its promises, could be the other way forward. In fact, she told me that she predicts that "in 2010, LCDs designed for reading will overtake the electrophoretic display technology in the ereader market."

She says that Pixel Qi's displays are actually more readable than e-paper, with "excellent reflectance, high resolution for text, sunlight readability"—just as easy on the eyes when the backlighting is turned off, but with the key advantages of full color and fast refresh, for pages that update as fast as video. Jepsen says it's even possible to get a week of battery life from LCD tech, of course depending on the device the screens are embedded in. Infrastructurally and perhaps historically speaking, the odds are in LCD's favor. Even new versions will be incredibly cheap and quick to manufacture because they can be made entirely in existing factories without requiring new, specialized equipment.

What's Really Gonna Happen?
Which display tech will win out is may prove to be more economic than aesthetic, but ebook readers are here to stay. The presumption that everyone will eventually read books on an electronic display of some sort in the future is so fundamental I haven't bothered to question it, mostly because nobody else does either. (Even if you love books, ebook reading makes sense.)

If you believe there's a future for a dedicated device that exists solely to display books and newspapers and whatever other forms of the printed word you want to read, then E-Ink and similar tech makes sense, as long as it eventually can cost less and refresh faster. The battery-life advantage is huge. But if you think that a reader will be just one function of, say, a multitouch tablet that's also your netbook, PDA and video display—and it's a device you charge every night—it's pretty clear that a multi-talented LCD display is the future.

As Quittner told us, someone's going to figure this out. It's just a question of who and when.

Old book image: ēst smiltis no ausīm/Flickr