The once-bright future of color e-paper

It's all too easy to dismiss the optimistic fantasies of yesterday: flying cars and robot servants may have filled the pages of Popular Mechanics in the 1950s, but today we're better grounded in reality, pinning our hopes on more reasonable futures based on technology we've actually developed. Still, even those predictions fall flat sometimes, and it can burn to look back at the track record of a horse we once bet on. For this editor, that stallion was known as color e-paper, a series of dimly hued electronic-paper technologies that teased a future of low-power gadgets with beautiful, sunlight-readable matte displays. Prototypes from half a dozen firms exhibited tantalizing potential for the last half of the 2000s, and then promptly vanished as the decade came to a close. Like many ill-conceived futurist predictions, expectations for this technology gently faded from the consumer hive mind.

The legacy of color e-paper may be muted and dim, but its past, at least, is black-and-white: monochrome E Ink set the tone for a decade of reflective, low-power displays. Years before the iPad and other tablets created the so-called third device, sunlight-readable E Ink screens nested into the public consciousness with Amazon's inaugural Kindle. Launched in 2007, it was a blocky, expensive and awkward device that had more potential than practical application, but the visibility of the Amazon brand lifted its stature. Consumers paid attention and the e-reader category was forged.

DNP The OnceBright Future of Color EPaper

Amazon's first e-reader, the Kindle, was so popular that it sold out in a matter of hours (Jon 'ShakataGaNai' Davis / Wikimedia Commons).

The legacy of color e-paper may be muted and dim, but its past, at least, is black-and-white: monochrome E Ink set the tone for a decade of reflective, low-power displays.

Naturally, it didn't take long for consumers to want more -- sure, a sunlight-readable display that lasted for days on a single charge was great, but what about color? This, too, was in the works for a few years, but progress was slow. Early prototypes from Fujitsu did a decent job of mirroring their monochrome cousins' modest power consumption, but images often appeared washed out and faded, like a newspaper left in the sun too long. The technology failed to beat the next Kindle to market, but improved as the years went on. In the meantime, Barnes & Noble added a splash of color to the e-reader market by attaching a secondary, peripheral LCD display to its Nook e-reader -- providing a vibrant and active navigation hub under its reading surface.

The race to create a consumer-ready color e-paper display heated up as Barnes & Noble, Sony and Amazon fought over market share -- if electronic reading devices were to be the next big thing, then surely color would be the category's killer feature. Companies like Samsung, Bridgestone, E Ink (then known as PVI), Fujitsu, Qualcomm, Philips and Plastic Logic spent the better parts of 2009 and 2010 teasing us with brighter screens, faster refresh rates and flexible-display technology.

DNP The OnceBright Future of Color EPaper

The original nook had a 6-inch e-paper display, with a color touchscreen at the bottom (Andrew Magill (Amagill) / Wikimedia Commons).

Despite the excitement surrounding color e-paper, however, few firms were actually ready to put their cards on the table. In early 2010, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dispelled rumors of an incoming Kindle Color, saying that current prototypes were simply "not ready for prime-time production," based on what he'd seen in the company's labs. Sony also dodged the subject, committing itself to its existing line of monochrome e-readers until higher-quality panels were available. Even the companies behind the technology openly admitted that it wasn't ready -- PVI and Qualcomm both delayed their respective E Ink Triton and Mirasol color displays, independently describing them as unsatisfactory. Worse still was the high cost of color e-paper development, which drove Samsung to back out of the industry in 2010.

Unfortunately, the delays didn't stave off consumer demand for a color reading device, and it came to market through the path of least resistance: the LCD. This veteran technology may not have been able to compete with color e-paper in the arenas of power consumption or visibility in direct sunlight, but it made up for these faults with bright, accurate color reproduction and the ability to play back video content. More importantly, the technology was available, and the growing tablet market soon offered a ready alternative to the developing color e-paper technology. Companies betting on color e-paper were soon forced to re-evaluate their strategies, Qualcomm told Engadget back at SID 2011, citing Apple's inaugural tablet as the catalyst for its partners' reconsideration.

DNP The OnceBright Future of Color EPaper

The Koobe Jin Yong e-reader with Qualcomm's Mirasol display technology (Qualcomm).

The original iPad didn't kill the color e-reader independently, of course -- the device was simply too large and too expensive to scratch the itch for every digital-reading enthusiast with an eye for color. Barnes & Noble's first full-color e-reader didn't have these problems. Launched in late 2010 for $250, the 7-inch Nook Color was the right device at the right time, introducing an affordable color reading device while simultaneously giving the bookseller an edge in the growing e-reader market. It didn't take long for Amazon to react to the positive consumer response, launching its own LCD color e-reader, the Kindle Fire, for a scant $200 the following year. The color e-paper offerings of the same era just couldn't compete -- Kyobo's $310 Mirasol eReader was panned for having poor battery life and unstable software, and an E Ink Triton device by Hanvon priced itself out of the market with a staggering $530 sticker. What's worse, consumers didn't even seem to know these products existed. The damage was done; the category's biggest brands knew they could create a successful color e-reader without next-generation e-paper. By the time ASUS and Google trumped the Kindle Fire with the Nexus 7, the technology was all but forgotten.

The damage was done; the category's biggest brands knew they could create a successful color e-reader without next-generation e-paper.

Color e-paper may have faded from the public consciousness after media tablets usurped its role in the consumer electronics space, but the technology itself lives on, albeit dimly. PVI, a company so dedicated to reflective-display technology that it changed its name to E Ink Holdings Incorporated, refocused its efforts on new markets, creating programmable supermarket price tags and digital billboards for European firms. It's even limping along in the color e-reader space, although we wouldn't call it a major player -- the most recent device to sport the company's Triton color E Ink display, the Jetbook, sells for an astounding $500. Hardly priced to sell, but the company tells us that it has seen some success in European classrooms. Despite these efforts, the company isn't exactly shining: in its Q2 2013 financial report, E Ink posted a $33.6 million loss -- its biggest in four years. Citing numbers from IHS, the report optimistically looked to Western European purchasing trends to cushion the blow, but more telling are the losses suffered in North America, which is now exhibiting a 15 percent loss in worldwide e-reader shipments when compared to 2011. The devices just aren't selling as fast as they used to.

Other companies are sending mixed messages. Qualcomm's Mirasol technology shipped in precious few devices before the company put a lid on production last summer, yet it continues to demonstrate new and intriguing prototypes. At SID 2013, for instance, the company trotted out a smartphone with a reflective 5.1-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 display and a 1.5-inch smartwatch, teasing a future of color e-paper-equipped hardware. The company was quick to point out that the devices were mere mock-ups, but a similar watch surfaced at the company's Uplinq developer conference earlier this week, taking the name of Toq. The smartphone display is still missing in action, however, and Qualcomm says it'll need a few more years in R&D before it's ready for market. When we asked the company if it was still developing screens for color digital readers, Qualcomm representatives could only tell us that they had nothing new to announce. Clearly the company's Mirasol technology is still moving forward, but the firm seems focused on smaller devices.

Amazon's recent Liquavista acquisition raises even more questions: if the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook Color sealed the fate of color e-paper years ago, why did one of the industry's biggest e-reader manufacturers purchase a company known for low-power color displays? Reaching out directly for an answer proved futile for Engadget -- the company won't budge on the future of color e-paper or Amazon's intentions for the next-generation Kindle device.

DNP The OnceBright Future of Color EPaper

Ectaco's pricey jetBook Color 2 with a Triton 2 color e ink screen (Ectaco).

Hushed acquisitions and quiet color-display advancements aren't enough to save color e-paper, however. More daunting than the display category's technological hurdles are the commercial roadblocks in its path: consumers are simply losing interest in the e-reader category as a whole. That certainly isn't to say that it's a dead or dying market, but it's slowly trending toward the niche. According to an IDC forecast released in March, e-reader shipments fell by a staggering 31 percent in a single year -- peaking at 26.4 million in 2011 and dropping to 18.2 million in 2012. At the same time, tablet sales have increased by about 11 percent, with about half of all devices sold falling into an e-reader-competitive form factor, measuring eight inches or smaller. Worse still, these numbers are for traditional monochrome e-readers, not the hopeful color models that failed to take flight.

The Kindle brand and its sunlight-readable e-paper display probably aren't going anywhere, but the category is edging away from the mainstream. Users demand more out of their devices these days, and slow-refreshing E Ink just can't cut it for a media tablet. If our predictions for the future need to be grounded in reality, then maybe it's time we finally put our color e-reader dreams to bed. The technology may eventually find a home somewhere, but at this rate, it likely won't be on our nightstand.