E-Ink devices could save newspapers, magazines, but they must survive Apple incursion first
E-Ink is all over this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, which opens Thursday in Las Vegas. It has “dozens and dozens” of products and models, said Sriram K. Peruvemba, vice president of marketing for the company, with the most prominent being Amazon’s e-book reader, the Kindle, and its competitors.
In fact, e-Ink supplies the low-power, high-quality screens for some 40 e-book readers, and two more are on the way. “Two of our key customers are launching products in the next week at CES,” Peruvemba said Tuesday.
Buzz is huge over the Skiff, which is expected to be a star of CES. (That there isn’t commensurate buzz for the Que is somewhat bizarre. It is feature rich, like the Skiff, and many of its features overlap.) The question is whether that star will be extinguished when Apple announces a tablet computer, a move expected as soon as Jan. 26. It’s reputed to be an e-reader, as well as many other things.
And Apple products, such as the iPod and iPhone, tend to dazzle their way into market dominance even with perceived shortcomings.
The Skiff has touchscreen capabilities all over its 11.5-inch reading area — it’s the biggest e-reader released — and is only a quarter-inch thick. Although the frame is stiff, the display itself is flexible; among the publicity stills released for the product is one in which e-Ink’s foil display is being bent into an arc. There’s a speaker, a headphone jack and a lithium ion battery that’s supposed to last for a week between charges. The Skiff uploads content through a WiFi connection.
The touchscreen covering the display is a film, not glass, so the entire device is being touted as rugged. “It’s something you can just pound on and it won’t break,” Peruvemba said. “Not that you want to pound on it.”
And do you notice? That’s not “Moby-Dick” in the company’s publicity still of the device in use, but the San Francisco Chronicle. Skiff, the company, is 100 percent owned by Hearst, the newspaper company. And it’s signed deals with News Corp., owner of the Wall Street Journal, and some of the nation’s top producers of magazines: Conde Nast, Meredith and Time Warner. Amazon’s Kindle store offers 24 newspapers, only half from the United States, and 12 magazines.
As dvice.com’s Peter Pachal pointed out two years ago,
The big thing holding back e-readers is that they’re focused on the wrong market, namely books. Books are a tough technology to improve upon. … Anyone making e-readers should move the focus away from replicating books and move to the real market: periodicals. E-readers excel in one key area that books don’t: their content is updatable. For anyone interested in news, this is the killer app.
One difference with Plastic Logic’s Que is that it’s not being touted with the same media deals in place or a ready-made newsstand such as Skiff has. The site, where users can buy copies or subscribe to magazines or newspapers, is to be for reading media what the iTunes store has been for music.
But even though Skiff is taking cues from Apple (and Que isn’t?) the differences with Apple’s tablet are going to be big. While Peruvemba and other official sources aren’t talking price yet on the Skiff, it has to compete with other e-readers, meaning costing $500 or less. It is likely to have one price when sold through 1,000 Sprint stores and another when packaged with subscriptions through Hearst or the other media companies backing it.
Apple’s tablet is rumored to cost between $500 and $1,000 — but it will be far more than an e-reader while doing its best, lacking e-Ink technology, to be a media reader as well.
The danger is that buyers have or may soon have too many toys; they might be seduced into a tablet computer that costs more than an e-reader but does more too, leaving the Skiff, Que and other devices continuing to struggle for market share. (Amazon is not releasing figures on sales of the Kindle, the e-reader that more or less defines the market. But when’s the last time you saw one on the T?)
Peruvemba isn’t fazed. To his way of thinking, if the Apple tablet doesn’t have e-Ink technology, the reading experience won’t be pleasing, and that means little threat to products that do have it.
“In the case of a tablet or … convergence where smartphones can be used to read books — in Japan this is quite common — it will still be true that people are looking for the best digital reading experience,” he said. “I can tell you 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.”
He also doesn’t believe e-readers or e-Ink products are anywhere near the end of their evolution. Color and video are on the way, and there are yet other sizes and formats to be rolled out — good news for newspaper readers who appreciate a larger canvas. Not even tabloid newspapers such as Metro or the Boston Herald are on letter-size paper. (The company’s technology can, and has been, printed on regular paper, fabric and even Tyvek construction materials. But these don’t have touchscreen capabilities.)
E-Ink is already exploring a model for maps or blueprints. Blueprints especially are extraordinarily expensive to print and mail; an e-Ink version would have a large display area that could be literally rolled up attached to a rigid staff that would hold touchscreen or mechanical navigation buttons.
E-Ink, founded in 1997 as a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, was bought by Prime View International Co. Inc. in June for $215 million. Although the company doesn’t reveal profits or revenue, Peruvemba confirmed sales of about $95 million in the first nine months of last year. And he noted staff has about doubled in the past year, to 200 workers.
The company has a South Hadley manufacturing site in addition to work it has done in Japan and China.
Check this space tomorrow, as CES opens and the devices start rolling out, for an industry analyst’s take on how e-Ink, Apple, Skiff and Plastic Logic will fare.