Wracked by advertiser defections to the Web and double digit circulation declines, print newspapers would gladly embrace a magic bullet were such a long shot to come along. Enter electronic ink, which marries ink on paper with everything electronic.
Imagine rolling up your electronic reader and sticking it in your coat pocket as customized 24/7 news feeds stream into it. The characters are solid and as easy on the eyes as black ink on newsprint. What’s more, the ink doesn’t rub off on your hands. This scenario is just what Hearst Interactive Media Group President Ken Bronfin envisions starting next year. He’s cagey about the details, but says a prototype will be about the size of letter size paper. Could this be the magic bullet that reverses the nationwide newspaper slide?
“I think it has that possibility. The number one reason people discontinue is the clutter and piles of newspaper in the corner. Electrons don’t pile up in the corner,” says Bronfin.
But don’t expect to see a print newspaper or something akin to a Web news site, cautions Bronfin. “It’s somewhere in between a Web and a newspaper. This device [will] bring the best of both worlds with portability and up-to-date and personalized news. It’s not the Web.”
The Hearst reader trades on the iPod model. Whereas the iPod holds music, video and photos, the Hearst reader could serve as the repository for documents and books in addition to newspaper content. More pointedly, such a news or broad information delivery system could homogenize regional newspaper companies as we know them. The user could check-off from a menu of news types and providers in even more granular fashion than they do today with RSS feeds.
From a cost perspective, the benefits could be enormous. Three quarters of a newspaper publisher’s expenses are tied up in delivery as in presses, paper, ink, trucks and all the people who make them go. Once in volume production, the electronic ink reader will be around $200, says Bronfin. “Newspapers would subsidize the cost of the readers the way cellular companies subsidize the handsets,” he says, adding that the other big cost would be the wireless transmission infrastructure.
The underlying technology of Hearst’s reader is E Ink Corp.’s electronic ink, which are positively or negatively charged microcapsules of ink that assemble into text on a flexible substrate. Hearst is one of two American newspapers companies that invested in E Ink of the total 18 investors. McClatchy is the other.
The Sony Reader electronic book, which debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, contains an electronic ink display and is a precursor to what the newspapers will introduce. The size of a paperback book, the Sony reader can go 75,000 page turns without a recharge to its lithium ion battery, according to Sony Product Manager David Seperson.
“Readers have been around for a long time, but the problems have been battery performance and being able to read it in daylight. E Ink actually looks better in daylight,” says Seperson. (This faded shot on Engadget.com might suggest otherwise).
While the more intriguing applications are in publishing, E Ink’s Electronic Paper Display (EPD)
has some other practical applications, ranging from transportation signage to watchdisplays. For instance, Motorola uses EPD in the new ClearVision display in its MOTOFONE mobile telephone. Displays in Citizen’s bendable clock and Seiko watchesare based on EPD technology. The destinationheadlinerin a busmight be acandidate, as couldlarge schedule billboardsin railway stationsor airports.
“It’s just like paper. You need no power to maintain the image. Unplug it and carry it around and it will still be there. You only need power to change [the type]. You can read it in bright sunlight, at an angle and put it on materials substrate,” says Michael McCreary, E Ink vice president of research and development.
Pre-electronic ink readers and tablets use LCD screens, which cannot match the EPD’s crispness. “LCDs are like staring into a light,” says Seperson.
EPD comes as an ink sheet component known as E Ink Imaging Film that display companies design in flexible backplanes. The Imaging Film is made up of the ink coated on a plastic substrate, which are cut into sheets packaged for the display maker. Materials are inorganic pigments and organic polymers, said McCreary.
With newspapers, old habits decay slowly and 46 million daily newspaper readers in the U.S. won’t switch to an electronic reader overnight. But the fact that there were a third more daily readers 20 years agoshould be impetus enough for newspaper publishers to invest in and evolve EPD rapidly. For now, it’s a black and white text which means color and crisp graphics or even audio and video – the things of which ads are made – will come in later generations of the technology.
Found in 1997, E Ink and EPD, like so many technology companies in Massachusetts, was hatched at MIT.