Color Comes to E Ink Screens
By ERIC A. TAUB
E-book readers are lightweight and use little power, but most have a distinct disadvantage to colorful tablet computers: their black-and-white displays.
But on Tuesday at the FPD International 2010 trade show in Tokyo, a Chinese company will announce that it will be the first to sell a color display using technology from E Ink, whose black-and-white displays are used in 90 percent of the world’s e-readers, including the Amazon Kindle, Sony Readers and the Nook from Barnes & Noble.
While Barnes & Noble recently announced a color Nook and the Apple iPad has a color screen, both devices use LCD, the technology found in televisions and monitors. The first color e-reader, from Hanvon Technology, based in Beijing, has an E Ink display.
“Color is the next logical step for E Ink,” said Vinita Jakhanwal, an analyst at iSuppli. “Every display you see, whether it’s a TV or a cellphone, is in color.”
Jennifer K. Colegrove, director of display technologies at DisplaySearch, said it was a milestone moment. “This is a very important development,” Ms. Colegrove said. “It will bring e-readers to a higher level.”
E Ink screens have two advantages over LCD — they use far less battery power and they are readable in the glare of direct sunlight.
However, the new color E Ink display, while an important technological breakthrough, is not as sharp and colorful as LCD. Unlike an LCD screen, the colors are muted, as if one were looking at a faded color photograph. In addition, E Ink cannot handle full-motion video. At best, it can show simple animations.
These are reasons Amazon, Sony and the other major e-reader makers are not yet embracing it. Amazon says it will offer color E Ink when it is ready; the company sees color as useful in cookbooks and children’s books, and it offers these books in color through its Kindle application for LCD devices. Sony is also taking a wait-and-see approach.
“On a list of things that people want in e-readers, color always comes up,” said Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading business division. “There’s no question that color is extremely logical. But it has to be vibrant color. We’re not willing to give up the true black-and-white reading experience.”
But Sriram K. Peruvemba, an E Ink vice president, is not upset by the reluctance of the market leaders to adopt his color technology. “I’m convinced that a lot of times it takes one company to prove the market,” Mr. Peruvemba said.
While barely known in this country, Hanvon is the largest seller of e-readers in China. Its founder and chairman, Liu Yingjian, says Hanvon has a 78 percent share of the Chinese market.
Hanvon’s first product using a 9.68-inch color touch screen will be available this March in China, starting at about $440. The price is less than an iPad in China, which sells for about $590. It will be positioned as a business product, with Wi-Fi and 3G wireless connectivity.
“It’s possible that we’ll sell this in the U.S. as well,” Mr. Liu said. Hanvon sells other products, like tablets and e-readers, to Americans online and through Fry’s, a regional electronics chain.
E Ink, based in Cambridge, Mass., was bought by Prime View Holdings of Taiwan in 2009 and was recently renamed E Ink Holdings. To create the color image, E Ink uses its standard black-and-white display overlaid with a color filter. As a result, battery life is the same as its black-and-white cousins, measured in weeks rather than hours, as with the iPad. The color model from Hanvon can be easily read in bright light, although the color filter does reduce the brightness.
The Hanvon e-reader is not intended to be a multifunction competitor to the iPad, but rather a dedicated reading device, like the Kindle. Ms. Colegrove of DisplaySearch said these types of lower-cost products should continue to gain market share, growing from four million units sold worldwide in 2009 to 14 million units by 2011. At the same time, slate-type devices like the iPad will increase from one million in 2009 to 40 million in 2011, she predicts.
“Color is absolutely critical for E Ink,” said James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research. “Without it, they’ll either be replaced by LCD displays or other competitors.”