Primal Screen How eBook's Failure Led to E Ink Innovation

Primal Screen How eBook's Failure Led to E Ink Innovation
In 1992, Sony thought they had it — the killer app. They unveiled a brick that folded open and looked like a cross between a chunky Discman and a miniaturised notebook computer. The Bookman, an eBook reader, debuted with a CD-Rom, cell phone-sized screen and keyboard. Despite their promise to give the book-reading commuter of Japan the kind of media portability the Walkman had brought to music fans, it failed miserably.

It’s a long and winding road to a killer app; the term was first used in the 1980s to describe how a piece of software (spreadsheet VisiCal) prompted bond traders to adopt hardware in the form of the Apple II, or how many IBM PCs were sold in the wake of Lotus 1-2-3, another spreadsheet application. Now, killer app refers to a gateway product that redefines our relationship with technology — think iPod, Napster or Skype. The funny thing about the eBook saga is that while Sony thought electronic books could induce literate hardware lust, it was the device’s very shortcomings that have brought us to the verge of the next big thing.

The failure of the Bookman meant that no one was pushing similar reading devices, but when the internet took hold, so did version 2.0 — the Softbook, the eBookman and RCA’s REB 1100 (a name only an executive could love) made their debuts in 1998. Obvious improvements included bigger viewing surface and touch screens instead of keyboards. Both faster and with longer battery life than the average laptop of its day, manufacturers were sure this time it would fly.

Consumers didn’t agree — new versions were expensive compared to first-gen PDAs like Palm, which could also work as text readers. Heavier than a hardcover book, they were less portable and harder to read in direct light. But it was just these complaints that sparked killer app innovation.

Sony is introducing a new eBook reader, but its most compelling feature has nothing to do with the device nor the text it carries — it’s the ink that renders it. The Sony Reader employs an E Ink screen. Millions of microcapsules, each as thin as a human hair, are suspended in a clear fluid. The capsules are of two varieties — white ones that carry a positive charge and black ones (or any other colour tint) that carry a negative. The ink is printed on a mylar sheet laminated with an electronic grid, essentially a map for the pixels. Each area on this grid can be charged — send a negative charge to the pixel and the white particles rise to the top and the black submerge; send a positive charge and the reverse happens; vary the strength of the charge and you get a mix of black and white particles: shades of grey. The white particles are made of titanium dioxide, a substance that is promoted as the whitest known to man, making it readable in natural light, even sunlight. Turn off the power and it holds the particles in its last state, giving it an advantage over all other screens, since it only requires power when it’s time to turn the page, as it were. The E Ink screen is slightly heavier than a piece of paper, and most amazingly, nearly as flexible, nearly as thin, and relatively cheap to manufacture.

These flexible screens may very well give the eBook the advantage it needs to succeed, but it has already made its way out of the lab and into other applications. E Ink, and a number of similar competing methods of producing flexible screens, has shown up in Japanese subway station signs, watches whose faces bend, and price tags that can be placed on retail shelves and updated as prices rise and fall or goods come and go.

Just as the Guttenberg press changed the face of literacy worldwide, giving the populace access to the world of the written word, so too could E Ink’s applications revolutionise, well, at least advertising. Portable devices like the iPod could take advantage of its flexibility, creating a fold-up cinema in our pocket. Corporate advertising can morph its message by the second to suit our rapidly changing times. Decor could be changed at the whim of a wifi connection — just literally dump your "wallpaper” to change the look of your room. Colour and movie quality motion are just around the corner, making any static image susceptible to the allure of motion.

Fifteen years ago, Sony’s first eBook reader had the potential to change the way we read. The seemingly simple problem of making the experience comfortable proved too elusive. But it inspired innovation that has the potential to change any surface at the whim of its user. Set out to solve a simple problem and you never know what revolution your killer app might spawn.

Graphic User Interface:
A Killer App Story

The GUI, or graphical user interface, is the software-based visual metaphor allowing a user to point, click, drag, drop and trash their computer’s files on a virtual desktop, instead of typing a mass of code to get our computer to go. It was developed in a lab called Xerox Parc. Yet Xerox, better known for creating the technology that preceded photocopiers, does not come to mind when most people think of the who’s who of the personal computing revolution. That’s because Xerox killed their Graphical User Interface program. Luckily, two engineers named Steve — namely Jobs and Wozniak — held on to the idea, eventually introducing it to the general public with a $10,000 computer called the Apple Lisa. Although they had a bit of success getting the general consumer to adopt the idea through other models branded Macintosh, it wasn’t until Apple’s new CEO, who replaced one Steve, contractually agreed to terms that roughly meant "yeah go ahead and copy us, we promise not to sue” that a guy named Bill (yep, that one is Gates) was able to convince the world that the GUI was good. The software was called Windows 95.