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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are We There Yet?

Based on Mark's comment from yesterday I updated my knowledge about E-Paper.

The Palo Alto Research Center (Parc), a research center for Xerox, was well known for inventing the Alto, a precursor of most modern computer systems.  The Alto, as the computer was called, consisted of an networking card (Ethernet - invented by Robert Metcalfe), a bitmap display, a mouse, a custom processor, and a hard drive (2.5 Mb).

The "Dover Laser Printer" was also invented around this time (I wrote about it here).  It was, as far as I know, the first networked printing device (as well as the first laser printer).

The concept of E-paper was invented by Nicholas K. Sheridon at Xerox Parc in the mid 1970's.

Some interesting material is presented here including a lengthy interview with Sheridon.

Sheridon makes an interesting point: "Much has been written about the incredible myopia of Xerox executives of the time, so I won't go into that except to say that there were numerous other opportunities to enormously expand Xerox's business that were similarly fumbled. Xerox had enough money to create an incredible research lab with top-notch people, but Xerox management could not shake off the copier mentality."

Xerox had literally invented the future of computing at Parc by 1980 or so.  Everything you use and take for granted in a computing sense was created there.  Supposedly Steve Jobs "stole" the idea to create the Lisa - the precursor of the Macintosh - from Parc after a visit.

But Xerox management could not understand what their research team had invented: they only understood copiers.  The proof, of course, is that only the Dover was commercialized by Xerox (initially as the Xerox 9700).  They eventually tried to commercialize the Alto as the Xerox Star Office - but it was a dismal failure.  Even with the commercialization of the Dover as the X9700, however, the networking and so forth was discarded in favor of a mainframe channel adapter (for communicating with main frames) and an 9-track, reel-to-reel tape drive.

The link covers Gyricon and E-Ink in some detail which were various spin-offs from Sheridon's work at Parc right up through 2007.

Of course, the article says, by 2012 E-paper will be as common as napkins...  It's all just around the corner.

Today's commercial uses of E-paper seem to be primarily readers, an example of which is here.  While there are other uses as well, there seems to be well recognized limitations with color and speed.

But back to Mark's point: "Soon we could see the commercialization of full color and motion passive devices. That may be what is needed for epublishing to usurp traditional print publishing."

I think this is a good question.

The answer, though, is somewhat complicated and inter-twined with history and happenstance.

In terms of the history of computing and digital printing Parc is the rosetta stone, as I commented above.  But only a very small number of technologies created there ever survived to be commercialized.  The reason for that, among other things, is that the people that invented the technology were inventors, not business men.

Metcalfe, I think, was the chief exception, founding 3-com to commercialize Ethernet.  And, even as late as the early 90's this was no sure bet.  Prior to that Novell, Microsoft and others (IBM and token ring) offered networking solutions that eclipsed Ethernet.  It wasn't until the Internet as we know it today took off did Ethernet's place in the world get solidified.

The metaphor at Parc was the replacement of paper for doing your work - which is not the same as replacing paper: the Alto had email, drawing programs, and so forth.  But, at the end of the day, you still needed a Dover to print out the results.  E-paper does not fit into this model - it was far ahead of its time in that regard.  It wouldn't find a real application until maybe 2005 and later.

The early Acrobat ads focused on the same thing:  Acrobat was designed to replace the need for paper on a computer.  I remember watching an ad Adobe created:  there was an office with copiers and typewriters.  People were trying to work on documents by physically cutting and pasting and copying.  People were attaching notes, marking on the paper, re-typing, re-printing and so on.  Acrobat was presented as the "holy grail" that allowed allow this to mostly be done on the computer.

You also have to me what looks like simple ignorance and arrogance: Apple's iPad no Match for E-Paper.

This headline is probably true, but not in the way the authors intended it.  Reading this and other E-paper ads its clear that E-paper bigots (I apologize if this offends anyone) can only imagine their product in a world where people do what they think it should be used for.  In this case, behave like a book reader.

However, I think this is remarkably short sighted on their part.  I have enough digital devices already - a laptop, a phone, an iPod.  I don't need another one.  The seem to miss the fact that the trajectory of digital products is to integrate these functions into fewer and fewer devices - not more and more specialized devices.

Do I believe that no one will see value in a Kindle?  Of course not.  But its a very specialized market I think - someone literally replacing the physical book with a device designed to behave as a book.  But that limits E-paper to that metaphor.  An iPad or laptop not only replaces the book but also does much, much more.

And finally, as I commented yesterday, the juggernaut of LCD manufacturing is just to large to be stopped or steered away.  Literally there is already overcapacity in the marketplace.  I talked about the cost progress of LCD's here.  Its declining so rapidly that if the Virgin Space program were to be as popular the $125,000 USD cost of a flight to space will be a mere $7,500 USD in 5 years or so.

I think that E-paper will find its place in specialized applications that are well suited.  My guess is that in the long run these will be manufactured or targeted applications outside the mainstream of laptop and iPad-like systems.

Print is being affect by this, not from direct replacement so much as by abandonment.  Many things are still printed but the previous user base is abandoning them.  Its not that an iPad user would ignore a magazine in a doctors office as short term entertainment, it just that at home that same user simply won't bother with the printed version.  After doing my research I feel that E-paper is already being or is about to be abandon as well for its initial "holy grail" applications - which will leave it relegated to manufacturing and other specialized applications.


  1. Todd,
    I agree epaper may never reach fruition. Certainly the momentum is behind the LCDs.

    To these points, there is a company called Pixel Qi that is developing epaper-like screens based on existing LCD technology. They work just like existing LCDs with backlights with the added capability (via turning off the backlight) of switching to a B&W full motion passive display. Its not vaporware either, the notion adam for one is set to be released using their technology.


  2. There will certainly be evolution in the LCD world. Pixel Qi looks like an innovator there. I know there are flexible LCDs as well.

    It will be interesting to see where things will go from here...


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