When ebooks first hit the market, many thought they'd just be another passing fad that would die out once the novelty wore off. There was no way that the average American would abandon the familiar, comfortable feeling of a book with actual pages in favor of a small, flat screen that you controlled by flicking your finger.
If you betted against e-book adoption, then you were in for a surprise. According to the latest Pew Research survey, 27% of all American adults have read an ebook in the last year. Not surprisingly, e-books are most popular among young adults. Another Pew study revealed that among the Americans polled who had read a book in the last year, 47% of adults between 18-29 years old had read an ebook. As tablet and e-reader ownership climbs, the number of Americans who read e-books will grow with it.
The Evolution Of E-Book Technology
This was the first portable electronic book. In the '80s, the Department of Defense began developing a portable electronic delivery device for technical maintenance information called project PEAM, the Portable Electronic Aid for Maintenance. Its sole purpose was to be an "apparatus for delivering procedural type instructions." In fact, most early ebooks were written for small, niche audiences and often only covered technical or mechanical subject matter. It wasn't until the late '90s and early '00s that e-books started to become popular with mainstream readers.
Competing Technologies: E-Reader vs. Tablet
Once it became clear that e-book adoption was no passing fad, tech companies raced to get their own reading devices and mobile reading software out on the market. Despite the number of devices that can be used to read e-books, almost all of them fall into one of two categories: e-reader or tablet. But what is the difference between the two? And which one is better?
The E-Reader Gains Early Traction
The e-reader (also referred to as an e-book reader or e-book device) is a mobile electronic device specifically designed for reading e-books and digital publications. The term “e-readers” usually refers to devices that use electronic paper (e-paper) and e-ink in their displays, instead of LCD. These technologies mimic the appearance of actual ink on paper. Popular e-readers include:
- Amazon's Kindle
- Barnes & Noble's Nook
- Sony's PRS-500
- Bookeen's Cybook
- Better for reading
- Better readability in sunlight
- Higher black and white contrast ratio
- Longer battery life
- Lower power consumption
- Less expensive than a tablet or iPad
- Most are a few ounces lighter than tablets, making them easier to hold and read for long periods of time
- Most displays are black and white only. The few e-reader displays with color have been widely criticized for being dull since they are unable to render high-contrast colors
- Less versatile than a tablet, which has multiple functions and can serve as a general purpose computer
- Low refresh rates
- Even on the latest e-readers, which have built-in WiFi and more closely resemble tablets, they have fewer features and apps than you'd get from a tablet
- Less storage
- The newer models with Internet can only connect through WiFi, which could limit when and where you can get online
Tablets Take Over
While e-readers enjoyed early success in the e-book industry, things started to shift in 2010, when Apple released one of its most successful products ever: the iPad. Unlike ereaders, these multifunctional devices could be used just like a desktop computer. Apple had also partnered with some of the largest publishers in the industry, allowing the company to distribute e-books. The iPad also came with built-in apps for e-books called iBooks and iBookstore.
After the iPad, many other Android-based tablets hit the market. With their sleek LCD displays, user-friendly touchscreens, and superior functionality, it wasn't long before consumers made tablets and iPads their primary e-book reading devices.
Some estimate that the electronics industry will ship 340 million tablets in 2016, making them the second-most popular device after mobile phones.
- General purpose device, superior overall functionality
- Come in a variety of screen sizes
- LCD display lets you experience the same vivid colors you'd get from a desktop
- More storage, allowing you to download songs, movies, and e-books with lots of graphics that tend to take up more space
- Better Internet access. Most tablets and iPads have both WiFi and built-in 3G service, so you can still access the Internet if WiFi is unavailable
- More expensive
- If you use the 3G service, you have to pay a monthly fee to a carrier Greater eye strain. If you use a tablet or iPad to read for long periods, the LCD screen is harsher than an e-reader
- Limited readability. Unlike e-books, which have a wider viewing angle, you can't read text on an LCD screen in bright conditions, making it difficult to read them outside
The Future Of Electronic Paper
The e-reader may be on its deathbed, but electronic paper technology is alive and well. The days of black and white text on a screen are long gone. E-readers are the past, and the future of e-paper is big, bright, and bendy.
While e-paper lost the battle of the reading device to the tablet, it will ultimately win the war over which one has the best display technology.
E-paper has several advantages over LCD displays:
- Requires far less energy making them more cost effective
- Cheaper operating costs make it more accessible for businesses that couldn't absorbed the spike in energy bills that come from LCD display
- Doesn't require a power cord, so there's no limitations on placement
- Flexible display technology
Recent advancements in e-paper and e-ink have ushered in an exciting new era in display technology, and the possible applications are virtually limitless.
One of the primary limitations of e-ink was that it was only available in black and white. But recently, the company E Ink Holdings rolled out a new tool called Prism: a color-changing film that's fully programmable to create almost any design. But this doesn't mean that a color e-reader is right around the corner. When it comes to how color e-ink will be used, companies are thinking much, much bigger.
Along with these improvements to e-ink, electronic paper technology was also evolving. Introducing ... the flexible display. Unlike a conventional display screen, flexible displays are ultra-thin, lightweight, low power displays that are bendable.
Combine color e-ink with flexible displays, and you've got a high resolution display, available in any size, that's as flexible and versatile as fabric. What once only served a single purpose — black and white e-book display — e-paper can now be used in almost every product, industry, and market you can imagine.
While the applications are virtually endless, the technology is still new, so it may be a few years before we're seeing colored, flexible displays on a daily basis. But, there are a few products on the market (both B2C and B2B) available now that feature it. These include:
- Color-changing sneakers and heels
- Jewelry that changes design
- Retail displays
- Electronic price tags and shelf labels for retailers
- Indoor and outdoor digital signage
And of course, there's E Ink Holding's Prism film, which is probably the most exciting product on the market. With its ability to instantly transform architectural materials into any color, pattern, or design, we can now change the color of a wall, ceiling panel, or entire room at the flip of a switch. But that's not all. Prism film can even interact with its surroundings. Doors can indicate if a room is vacant, or you could program ceiling designs to respond to stimuli like noise, temperature, or motion in the room. The possibilities and applications for such a product are virtually limitless.
This technology has the potential to completely revolutionize how we experience our environment. Imagine sitting in a waiting room or lobby watching the walls change color in response to the music, or being at the mall and seeing a display ad update in response to the time of day or the weather outside.
We have smartphones, smart houses, and smart wearables. But are we on the verge of living in smart environments where our surroundings can constantly optimize themselves in real-time? Ladies and gentlemen, the future has officially arrived.