Most of you met the newest addition to the TeleRead team, the reporter and author Juli Monroe, when we published her introductory post a couple days back. (If you missed it, click here to give it a look.) But last weekend, we republished an article of Juli’s about E Ink readers that was originally written for one of our sister sites, GadgeTell.
Juli’s piece was essentially a defense of dedicated E Ink e-readers; she made it quite clear that she doesn’t put much stock into the recent chatter that, due to the rise in popularity of tablet computers, E Ink e-readers are slowly but surely dying out. To say the essay touched a nerve would be an understatement; with 18 comments (and counting) having been posted to the story so far, it’s pretty obvious that the E Ink vs. LCD debate is one our community takes seriously.
Personally, I haven’t formed an opinion just yet about whether or not dedicated e-readers will soon be going the way of the Dodo. I do, however, think the answer to that question will probably depend largely on two factors: the advancements of LCD screens over the next year or two, and the ROI of e-readers over the next couple years for the gadget’s three biggest producers: Amazon, B&N and Kobo.
But there’s another factor that, to me, seems significantly more important—it’s also something that doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention in the e-reading community. That factor is the overall health of the E Ink Corporation itself. (After all, if E Ink suddenly went out of business, it would undoubtedly be a long time before a new line of dedicated E Ink readers made its way onto the market.)
Not that E Ink is in any danger of going under—at least, as far as I know, it isn’t. And yet, as an E Ink employee I met during CES explained to me, Amazon is far and away the company’s largest and most profitable customer, with Barnes & Noble’s Nook division coming in at number two. What that says to me is that if Jeff Bezos were to decide that his company’s E Ink readers simply weren’t worth the time or investment, E Ink itself would be in a world of trouble. That would an incredible shame, and not just for the e-reading community, either. Why? Well, because the E Ink technology can be—and is, to a surprisingly large and wide degree—used in a very diverse range of applications: We all know about the E Ink credit cards, watches and smartphones. But forward-thinking industrial designers have lately been developing E Ink-integrated concepts for tons of different products. (More about that later.)
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Incidentally, I completely agree with Dave Vondle, the co-founder (along with Jerry O’Leary) of Central Standard Timing, who I ran into during CES. (Dave was hanging out at the same E Ink booth I mentioned previously, passing out business cards to interested passersby. CST, in case you’re not familiar with it, is the micro-startup that developed the now-nearly-legendary CST-01 watch. It’s being called “the world’s thinnest watch,” and yes, it’s built with an E Ink display.)
Dave and I had a really interesting, if brief, conversation. He told me that he’s long been under the impression that “E Ink screens have been underutilized.” Of his CST-01 watch, he said “the whole product was inspired by E Ink,” and that “everything about the watch was designed in relation to the constraints of the E Ink technology.”
That conversation, by the way, took place during the evening of Tuesday, January 8. Dave told me that the Kickstarter campaign he was utilizing to try and fund the development of the CST-01 watch had officially kicked off just a few hours earlier. Two days later, The Verge ran a brief item about Dave and his watch; the big story then was that he had achieved his full Kickstarter goal of $200,000 in just 48 hours.
Let me say that again: Dave raised $200,000 in two days. That’s approximately $4,166 per hour, or $69.44 a minute. That’s also roughly $1.16 every second, for 48 hours straight. As I sit and write this now, the CST-01 Kickstarter campaign still has 37 days to go, and the total amount pledged is currently at $437,702. And just like that, Dave and Jerry have been permanently entered into the quickly-growing pantheon of the latest consumer electronics trend: high-tech watches.
And yet while Dave and Jerry, both of whom work for IDEO, may seem to have fallen directly into an ever-growing pile of money, it’s worth keeping in mind that über-successful Kickstarter campaigns aren’t always the bed of roses they may at first appear to be. After all, as Dave reminded me in an email this afternoon, “The money has to go toward making and shipping the products. We think we can be profitable, but it’s not as if we’re pocketing that money. Also,” he added, “if we want to be able to continue to make our product, we need some money to fund the next round of production.”
Nevertheless, Central Standard Timing has found itself on one heck of a ride over the past the week or so. And certainly, a lot of that has to do with the power of CES (multiplied by the power of the media). And yet the plain fact of the matter is that, thanks in large part to the super-flat E Ink screen, Dave’s CST-01 watch is incredibly attractive and well-designed, and that’s why well over 3,000 people have so far pledged $129 to reserve one.
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I would suggest taking a look at both the Customer Showcase and the Concept Showcase sections of the E Ink website. The Concept Showcase, which features “a collection of ideas from top design firms,” is particularly exciting. For instance, check out the ReScript by Axis Design (photo at left), which has an updatable information display on its top, making it reusable. Or how about the E Ink Retail Shelf Tags (photo above), which are already being used in a pilot program with Costo?
Other incredibly cool E Ink devices you can learn about on various sections of the company’s website include the following:
A kitchen cutting board, also created by Axis Design, with a surface area that doubles as a cookbook. An E Ink music stand (no need to flip pages while you’re performing). Electronic toll passes. A snowboard with real-time ambient temperature information listed on its nose. A shopping bag. A bike lock. A fuel gauge, a toothbrush and a baseball glove. You get the idea.
Of course, not all of these concepts actually exist as real products just yet, although I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them did before long.
So. Is E Ink here to stay? I personally wouldn’t hesitate for a second to say “yes.” But as for whether or not E Ink e-readers are here to stay … well, that’s a much tougher question to answer, obviously. But after spending a bit of time learning about all these decidedly futuristic E Ink-enabled gizmos, my guess is that dedicated e-readers probably will be around for the long haul, but not necessarily in their current form.
I would venture to guess that someone—probably Bezos—will someday soon take a gamble on an E Ink reader that performs the sorts of functions that most of us don’t even currently know exist.
Any guesses as to what those functions may be? If so, leave us a note in the comments section.
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CST-01 Kickstarter campaign video
E Ink propaganda campaign