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.

Kindle Fire HD 4G LTE – What is LTE? Is LTE important?

Kindle Fire HD 4G LTE (and other tablets like iPad 3) tout LTE as a BIG improvement.

The questions worth asking are -

  1. What is LTE?
  2. Is LTE really a Big improvement, or is it more of a marketing gimmick?

Thanks to Kaethy for asking ‘what is LTE’. Well, let’s find out exactly what LTE is, and whether or not it’s a big deal.

What is the LTE in Kindle Fire HD 4G LTE?

  1. LTE is a way for phones and mobile devices to get data wirelessly at high speeds. That’s the crux: It will let you get wireless data to your Kindle Fire HD 4G very fast.
  2. Phones and Mobile devices use wireless technology to transfer data. Data is transferred via waves that use the electromagnetic spectrum (it’s fine, we can ignore what this is). Each type of use (TV, Radio, wireless) has its own band of frequencies. This is handled by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).
  3. Wireless Data use is just like Radio or TV broadcasting where waves that ‘hold’ the radio/TV data are sent out into the air by the station. Then the radio or the TV antenna captures those waves and converts them into a form we can understand. Except here it’s to your phone or mobile device, and your phone or mobile device can also transmit data back.
  4. You have wireless data like cellular data service where there are Cellphone Towers that have a range of 10 to 15 miles. You can have wireless networks like WiFi which have a range of just a few rooms or a home. In each case, data is being sent to your device via waves. In each case, your device is sending data back to the ‘modem’ or ‘tower’ via waves.
  5. Wireless data transfer via waves came into use because it was impractical to have wires everywhere. Can you imagine needing to have a wire always plugged into your phone or Tablet?
  6. Wireless technology evolves and the improving technologies get classified into ‘Generations’. It’s mostly a marketing thing. 2G = Second Generation (GSM, CDMA, GPRS). 3G = Third Generation (W-CDMA, EDGE, CDMA2000). 4G = 4th Generation. These are all generations of wireless technology. Just as your computer gets faster and more powerful and gets a larger hard drive, the wireless technology evolves and becomes better.
  7. LTE stands for ‘Long Term Evolution’. It is the next generation of wireless technology after existing 3G technologies (such as W-CDMA).
  8. LTE is marketed as 4G LTE. 4G = 4th Generation. Funnily enough, it does NOT meet the requirements for 4G. The standards body allowed companies to use ’4G’ because it is significantly improved over existing 3G technology. It isn’t a ‘true 4G’ technology, more like 3.75G.
  9. LTE can be over different frequency bands. Kindle Fire HD 4G LTE supports 10 bands. Worldwide there are 32 bands. While 4G LTE really is a worldwide standard that should work everywhere – it will only work if your device supports the wireless band being used by the LTE networks in the country or region you are in.
  10. AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile are ALL moving to LTE. Whereas there was a clash in 2G and 3G technologies (CDMA vs GSM vs GPRS), all of them will be using the same technology standard of LTE. Note: They will use different bands. Amazon has said that LTE supports all 10 bands available in the US but I have no idea if that includes Verizon or if Amazon means something else.
  11. The move to LTE is happening worldwide. So we will have the same technology standard of LTE worldwide. Only problem is that there will be 32 different bands. So your device must BOTH support LTE and support the respective wireless frequency band, to work on a LTE network.
  12. AT&T is FAR BEHIND Verizon in LTE. AT&T covers something like 30 million potential subscribers while Verizon covers 200 million potential subscribers (these are inexact figures). So the choice of AT&T is a bit strange. Where AT&T doesn’t have LTE you’ll get HSPA+ (which is faster than 3G and slower than LTE). However, Verizon is the only company that has ACTUAL LTE available in lots of markets and areas.

In a nutshell:

LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a much faster way of transferring wireless data from and to your Tablet. It is not yet widely available – only Verizon is well positioned on that front. It is a significant improvement over existing 2G and 3G wireless technologies.

It’s a BIG DEAL for the FUTURE. For the present, it’s just a luxury feature, not a killer feature.

Is LTE a big deal? How important is LTE?

Actually, there are lots of nuances -

  1. LTE is very good insurance for the future. If someone invents something that requires super high-speed data transfer, then LTE on your device would be great. For most current uses (email, surfing, downloading a book, downloading a song) LTE is way more than necessary speed.
  2. You could argue LTE is useful for things such as downloading movies really fast and streaming movies and playing streaming games.
  3. The speeds LTE provides are way more than required for most usage we currently have. Peak download rates of 100 Mbps or more and upload rates of 50 Mbps or more. Unless you’re getting the Encyclopaedia Britannica as an email attacment that’s way more speed than you’ll need.
  4. In actual use you’ll probably find LTE gives you download speeds between 10 and 30 Mbps. For comparison, 3G offers speeds around 2 Mbps. Please Note: 2 Mbps is perfectly fine for things like email and surfing the web and even for downloading things.
  5. LTE supports some good features from a technological perspective – low latency, efficiency, inter-operation with existing standards like GSM/EDGE and CDMA2000, support for multicast-broadcast single frequency network which would allow things like Mobile TV, increased spectrum flexibility (it can work across more wireless frequencies). This is part of why it’s becoming a worldwide standard.
  6. LTE provides really, really fast speed. There aren’t really very many technologies that need that faster speed. Basically, we haven’t invented uses for that amount of speed. However, if and when someone does, you’ll be glad you have it.
  7. If you want speed for speed’s sake, then LTE is great.
  8. LTE is costly. The Networks spent a LOT of money to set up their LTE networks. Most of them are still setting up LTE networks. They are going to recoup that money via data charges. So all that fast data transfer and streaming movies – lots of data charges. Also, since data transfer is so fast, you are going to use a LOT more data on LTE.
  9. AT&T is still years away from having full LTE deployment in the US. Please keep this in mind. Your area might not have AT&T LTE support.
  10. Patents. There are about 50 companies that have declared they have LTE patents that are standards essential. If a patent is ‘standard essential’ then the company holding it MUST license it to everyone else, and at reasonable rates. So your device is NOT going to get banned or blocked. However, Amazon might have to pay some charges to some companies. If it has LTE patents of its own (unlikely), then it might be able to cross-license and avoid paying charges.
  11. The successor to LTE is called LTE Advanced. It’ll be a ‘True 4G’ technology. We are quite a few years away from that. Companies might even skip it and move on to the successor to LTE Advanced or to a completely different technology – so no point waiting for it.

To put all of that into plain English -

  1. LTE is a very fast wireless data transfer standard.
  2. There isn’t really any use right now that makes LTE necessary. Perhaps streaming live games or live TV or streaming movies.
  3. Data charges can REALLY pile up with LTE. It’s capable of 100 Mbps and will probably deliver at least 20 to 30 Mbps. You’re going to have to be very, very careful about data limits and overage charges.
  4. AT&T is way behind Verizon in LTE deployment. Only a small part of AT&T’s network has LTE.
  5. LTE is very good insurance for the future. In 1.5 to 2.5 years you’ll be really glad you have it. Until then it’s just a luxury – something that lets you get faster instant gratification.

You can read up more about LTE at Wikipedia and about 4G at All Things Digital. The Kindle Fire HD 4G LTE product page has details on what Amazon is offering. Please keep in mind that it’s mostly marketing speak and it doesn’t reveal things like data rate after the first year or overage charges or what the cost of higher data plans is.

Is it worth paying $200 more for 4G LTE and 16 GB of extra memory?

It’s hard to say.

4G LTE is definitely a luxury at this stage. Companies write ‘ultra-fast’ but they don’t mention that -

  1. We don’t really have any usage for that fast a data transfer speed. Not yet.
  2. The data costs will be very high. If you start streaming HD movies over LTE then you might as well write a blank check to AT&T.

At the same time, LTE is good insurance for the future. In case some use comes up that is very data intensive (Super Super High Fidelity Movies, New Broadcast TV in Ultra High Definition), LTE will be great. If you just want a device to check email and surf the web and don’t mind waiting a bit for movies to download, then the $299 Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ is just fine.

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