With the breakout success of the Amazon Kindle, eReaders finally came of age with a success story. It took the breakthrough technology of E Ink Holdings, makers of eInk or ePaper displays, which were readable in sunlight and consumed minimal power to make them appealing, and other technological advances to make them affordable.
The next move everyone expected was for a color eReader. The Kindle, Barnes & Noble NOOK, Sony Reader and others are all monochrome and fine for reading a plain text book but not so good for color publications, like reference books, cookbooks, scholastic text books, and glossy magazines.
E Ink Holdings announced a color display in 2010, the Triton, which won the Display Component of the Year from the Society of Information Displays voting committee at the SID 2011 show.
And then… nothing. While the first color eReaders based on the competing, but still similar, Qualcomm mirasol display technology were announced from China (pictured) in January, instead of color eReaders, the US saw the release of the NOOK Color, Kindle Fire, and NOOK Tablet, which had color displays using LCD screens instead of eInk.
Color eInk in Education
So what happened? Sri Peruvemba, CMO of E Ink, said color eReaders have gotten off to a good start... In education/text books.
"We knew the first generation of color products we launched would only have application in the text book space and not general purpose eReader space," he said. "eReaders are all for leisure reading, not for textbooks. [Triton eReaders] are in production and shipping, but it's targeting a market that doesn't quite exist yet."
Peruvemba said education is a new market for eReaders, but he is convinced "every text book will all be replaced by some type of electronic media at some point in the future. It makes perfect sense." Already he knows of 10 companies making efforts to build and deploy eReaders to school children, especially in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations.
That's true, notes Jon Peddie, president of the graphics market research firm Jon Peddie Research, but it's also a very price sensitive market. The Indian government, he said, wants tablets for students that cost just $35.
"If E Ink can get the price down to LCD levels they have a chance, but there's a glut of LCD screens out there. If you can make them small, the yields tend to go up. So they have a hell of a battle to compete on price against LCDs," he said.
There will also be improvements in eReaders as semiconductor makers get into the business. In the beginning, E Ink made its own chips to power the eReader because the industry didn't see the potential. With the success of the Kindle and NOOK, semiconductor makers have gotten religion.
Though slow display refresh rates have limited eInk-based eReaders as text-only devices, Freescale has a system-on-a-chip (SoC) running video on monochrome E Ink screens. Qualcomm's mirasol eReader, the Hanvon C18, supports video with Qualcomm's own Snapdragon chip. Texas Instruments also has a SoC with a software display controller running video, while Marvell has demoed some fast motion products and Epson is also making progress on eReader chips.
For now, Peruvemba thinks Triton is suitable for the education market because they don't need the bright color or motion video required for consumer tablets that show video and high resolution photos.
"I'm sure once we get to the next generation of color display and then the third generation displays get launched, you will see general purpose eReader markets go with that type of a product. For now, monochrome meets the needs and requirements for eReaders," he said.
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