Do eReaders have a chance to replace paper?

A long time ago, Amazon thought of Kindle as a means to replace not just books (the physical shell of books) but paper itself.

Since that time, a lot has changed. Now Amazon is more enamored by Kindle Tablets and all the multi-tasking digital-content-buying rainbows and unicorns that Tablets promise.

However, the question and the opportunity remains. Replacing paper is, if you think about it, a far bigger opportunity than Tablets.

Do eReaders have a realistic chance to replace paper?

Well, let’s consider what aspects eReaders have to cover to be able to have a shot at replacing paper -

  1. Cheap. Getting to be as cheap as paper is difficult. However, eReaders should be cheaper than they currently are. We are already approaching $50. For eReaders to truly replace paper, we’ll need prices in the $5 to $20 range.
  2. Runs Forever. For this we’ll need solar-powered batteries or some other renewable/infinite energy source. This, however, is a problem on the price front as solar cells aren’t cheap.
  3. Doesn’t break. This is a very problematic area. We have flexible eInk close to being released. However, is it merely ‘hard to break’ or is it really ‘unbreakable’? Also, flexible displays cover just the screen. What about the internal electronics?
  4. Light. We’re close here. eReaders are already in the 5 oz to 8 oz range. That’s good. It would be better to get even lighter eReaders.
  5. Compact and/or Foldable. Flexible eInk displays might be able to address this. There will be issues around making the electronic components fit in with the ‘foldable’ designs.
  6. Writable. This is a big problem area. It’s really, really easy to write on paper. Most eReaders don’t really have handwriting recognition or stylus support. Those, if added, add to the cost. Also, most eReaders have really tacky input methods. Paper is still far quicker for writing and much better suited.
  7. Intuitive. Hard to say whether eReaders can be made as intuitive as paper.
  8. Crisp and Readable. eInk is almost there. eReaders perhaps need 2-3 generations of further improvement before they can rival paper on readability.
  9. Tearable into pieces. This may or may not be possible and desirable. One of the good things about paper and paper notebooks is you can tear off a piece or a page and do something with it.
  10. Easy to Store and Carry and Transport. This is a tough one. eReaders are very fragile. Paper is fragile too – However, it’s easy to store and carry and is fragile in a narrower sense of the word. Flexible eReaders that have unbreakable screens will help make eReaders less fragile. However, we still have a lot of vulnerabilities.
  11. Available in lots of sizes. This is quite a tall order. Kindle DX is selling for $299. For eReaders and eInk to be able to replace paper we need eInk to be splittable and joinable OR available in lots of different sizes. Given that the yield of screens goes down dramatically as screen size increases, thus leading to much higher costs, this might prove to be one of the toughest problems to solve. There’s no easy way to get eInk screens in different sizes while keeping prices low.
  12. Color. With paper you can use different color pens and pencils and crayons and get a lot of different colors. Color eInk eReaders aren’t yet available.
  13. Drawing. Paper allows for easy sketching and drawing. This isn’t possible with eReaders yet (the easy part).
  14. Multiple Color Backgrounds. Not sure whether this will be easy once Color eInk gets developed. For now, all eInk screens have white backgrounds only.
  15. Tactile Feedback and the Feel and Friction of Paper. Paper has a very nice friction and feel to it. In some cases it’s necessary (writing with a pen or paper). In some cases it just gives you a nice feel (turning pages). What can eInk do to afford easy writing (based on friction) and easy tactile feedback?
  16. Long Life. Journals and notebooks last for decades, sometimes centuries. Books last longer. Our eReaders might last 5-10 years if we’re lucky.
  17. Ownership Rights. Everything you buy on an eReader is licensed and owned by someone else. With paper and books you can share and resell and hand it to your kids or their kids.

If you consider all the items in the list above, and any other qualities of paper we’ve missed, it’s a very tall order. The interesting thing is, we’re slowly but surely getting close to knocking items off the list. Companies like Kobo are showing that even if Amazon forgets eReaders and fixates on Kindle Tablets and Kindle Phones, the push to make eReaders and eInk better will continue.

eReaders and eInk have several advantages of their own. This means that eInk doesn’t have to match every item on the above list. It just has to match some of the qualities of paper. After that, the paper qualities it replicates, combined with its own unique advantages, will make it a better choice than paper.

Things eReaders do better than Paper

  1. Reusable. Use a sheet of paper and it’s gone. You can’t really reuse it. With eReaders you can reuse the screen again and again.
  2. Large Storage Capacity. eReaders can store thousands of books or millions of sheets of notes. eReaders with SD cards can store even more. EReaders effectively double up as your bookshelves.
  3. Easy to Search. Want to quickly search through all your books and notes – do a quick text search on your eReader. Much better than having to go through 20 notebooks and 200 books to find what you’re looking for.
  4. Adaptable. You can read books and magazines or search the Internet. You can play a simple game or write a journal entry. eReaders are more adaptable and can be used for lots of different things. Note: This is still heavily limited by the reluctance of eReader companies to open up their devices, especially when it comes to apps that could be used to organize, manipulate, or process ebooks.
  5. Switch between Pages and Books quickly. It’s much easier to switch between books, and to jump around within a book, with an eReader.
  6. Not as Easily Lost. It’s easy to lose a sheet of paper. eReaders are comparatively harder to lose or misplace. The downside is that if you lose an eReader the monetary loss is much, much higher.
  7. Don’t use Trees. eReaders save trees, at least to an extent.
  8. Double up as a Bookstore. You can shop from the eReader itself and get books instantly.
  9. We can come up with more advantages. Hopefully, the above eight advantages gives a good idea of what eInk and eReaders can offer beyond the capabilities of paper and paper books.

eInk basically replaces the physical ‘paper’ and ‘books’ and ‘notebooks’ with digital versions. This makes transportation and replication and browsing and searching much faster and easier. It also provides near-infinite storage capacity and offers lots of possibilities.

eReaders and eInk offer a lot of possibilities that are untapped

We haven’t really seen any ‘open’ ecosystem that allows third-party developers to extend eReaders. In a way, companies making eReaders are holding back eReaders and eInk from what they could be. Imagine if there were a few hundred thousand apps for eReaders – Who knows what creative uses and features 3rd party developers would have figured out.

Most common pain points – poor PDF support, poor organization, no easy way to print, no easy way to get notes off of the device, no easy note-taking, no writing features – would be easily fixed if one or more eReader companies took a more sensible view of what eReaders could be, and how other companies and people could help.

Everything we have seen so far is just the handiwork of a handful of high-strung companies, working in a very tightly controlled environment. Once access to eReaders and eInk gets democratized, we’ll see the features and power of eReaders grow exponentially. It’s almost as if the companies want to hold back eReaders – as if they fear unleashing all the possibilities of eInk.

These companies are restricted by their imaginations and by their need for profit and control. Their vision of what eInk and eReaders could be is far too narrow. Imagine if the iPhone had no Apps. If the Internet had no websites except for a few hundred ‘approved’ by a handful of companies that controlled the Internet.

That’s basically what we’re seeing with eReaders and eInk. A technology and a class of devices that are held hostage by a handful of companies that lack the wisdom and intelligence to leverage the power of hundreds of thousands of third-party developers. Sooner or later, some company is going to figure out that what is truly needed is to set the technology free. Sell screens. Sell blank devices. Let people make apps and accessories that interact with the devices and with the ebooks.

Let the technology grow naturally and freely. You aren’t God, just a gardener.

Even without Apps & Freedom, eReaders and eInk will grow

While companies making eReaders are showing a striking lack of ambition and imagination, the companies making the screen technologies are much more active and are persevering.

Companies like eInk/PVI, Qualcomm, and Pixel Qi are trying out eInk and multi-mode screens in various areas – smart phones, smart watches, tablets, displays. As they keep pushing, they are bound to find some areas that stick. They are also going to run into a smart company sooner or later. A company that leverages all available resources and focuses on replacing paper instead of artificially narrowing down the scope of what eReaders and eInks can do and what they can be.

It’s only when we expand the scope of eInk and eReaders, that we can make real progress. Focusing on books limits what eInk can do. Even simple improvements in vision like trying to add ‘writability’ will result in big jumps. The real progress and biggest jumps will happen when companies focus on replacing paper in all senses of the word. Right now it’s as if they’ve inherited a car and are using it only to exercise horses.

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