How Cambridge’s e-reader king handles being dethroned by the iPad

An image used by Barnes & Noble to promote its Nook Simple Touch e-reader plays off the fact it has an e-Ink screen — made in Cambridge — but with a “GlowLight” front-lit display.

Once E Ink could brag about making 99 percent of the e-reader screens on the planet, from the Amazon Kindle to Barnes & Noble’s Nook to the most obscure device meant for overseas markets unknown to most Americans. With the boasts quieting along with the loss of e-readers’ market share to iPads and other tablets and the diminishing of the company’s stock price, the company is focusing instead on introducing niche e-Ink products that have nothing to do with books.

It has at least 13 such products and devices to introduce at the Society for Information Display Display Week 2012 International Symposium and Exhibition, running from Sunday through Friday in Boston. The Taiwanese parent company of the Alewife offices is also sponsoring the “Innovation Zone” demonstrations space at the exhibit and has executives giving several talks, including at the keynote session. It looks like E Ink is intent on dominating the 50-year-old group’s conference like Apple has dominated recent Consumer Electronics Shows, albeit overshadowing the e-Ink products without even being at the events.

Digital Book World makes a convincing argument for even Apple losing dominance specifically among e-book readers (“Two out of five e-book readers who choose a tablet as their primary reading device use an iPad,” says the site’s Jeremy Greenfield, but at the end of last year it was as much as two-thirds). But Infographic Labs — which does indeed make its case via nifty infographics — reminds us that even though the Kindle Fire is far and away the most popular e-book device, it had only 4 percent market share to the iPad’s 68 percent in the first quarter of this year.

It’s a confusing debate, since the Fire is not an e-Ink device; it has an LCD screen similar to the iPad’s. But the impact of the sales figures are clear, and it’s the rollout of nonreader E Ink products that makes the case.

Among the products:

The $140 Nook Simple Touch e-reader, which has the new GlowLight front-lit display — solving the e-Ink problem of reading in the dark. Consumer Reports tested the device and gave a top rating, calling it “as easy to read as the best readers we’ve tested.”

Better, cheaper touch technology via On-Cell touchscreen technology from Hydis, another company owned by Taiwan’s E Ink Holdings. On-Cell essentially eliminates the glass atop the e-Ink products or, as the company says, “the touch functionality is embedded within the display itself rather than as a separate component atop the display. This results in more precise touch with better optics … In addition, LCDs with this touch technology consume less power and can take advantage of cost reductions in manufacturing due to the reduction of a glass layer and the alleviation of the need for a separate touch-panel supplier.”

Electronic shelf labels and ePaper signs and billboards made with ePaper used to display informational and emergency messages (and advertisements).

An LED hybrid traffic light that has high visibility in a variety of weather conditions but uses less power than other streetlights.

A bicycle computer that displays heart rate, speed, distance traveled and other metrics.

A solar Bluetooth sound system with an E Ink display for battery and connectivity indicators and smartphone case giving similar on-demand information including time, battery strength and new messages.

The Boston Globe covered much of this Monday, quoting Sri Peruvemba, the company’s Cambridge-based chief marketing officer, as saying, “We saw that our growth in the e-reader space has slowed, and revenue dipped. In the past one or two years, we’ve been saying that we need to get into a lot of other things.”

And so they have — although before and after Apple rolled out its iPad tablet, Peruvemba was shrugging off its impact on “serious readers” because he could say “with confidence that there is no competing technology out there that brings more readability to the market. We believe people who are serious readers will look for that experience.” Industry analysts for IDC in Framingham largely backed him up.

But E Ink and the analysts have been disappointed in that belief, resulting in more attention being given to nonreader devices.

“The average consumer does a lot more than read books on their devices,” Tom Mainelli, another IDC analyst, told the Globe.

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