There's news from PVI, the makers of the Kindle's e-ink screen, that they've got new versions coming this year that'll update fast enough for "animation," have touchscreens and color. The question is, is it too little to late?
The news is coming via PVI's chairman Scott Liu, through Digitimes. It couldn't be simpler really: Scott is promising that this year PVI will turn out more flexible e-ink screens, ones that have a fast enough refresh rate to support animation speeds, and ones that have touchscreen pressure sensors behind the flexible e-ink surface, such that the electronics that supports the touch-sensing doesn't obscure the screen. It'll all hit the market in 2010, and will roll off PVI's existing TFT LCD production line, once it's been tweaked a little to produce the e-ink tech.
It all sounds incredibly promising and, in fact, such screen tech would go a long way towards enabling Amazon to produce the much-improved Kindle 3 that we suggested yesterday. Why's PVI making such a song and dance of this right now, though? It's actually really obvious: It all boils down to Apple's iPad, and the long shadow it's casting over e-reader technology.
The iPad has an LCD screen, LED-backlit for power efficiency, and while it doesn't deliver the same sort of easy-on-the-eye viewing skills that e-ink's electrophoretic technology does, what it will enable is the iPad to become a fully multimedia (books, music, video, Web) device that makes a Kindle's tech look seriously outdated. Amazon's already trying to combat Apple's advances with the strangely-conceived Kindle app idea, and it's clear that PVI is trying to indicate that when the Kindle 3 arrives (sometime in 2010?) it'll have a improved screen tech that'll go some way toward competing with the iPad's offerings. We're thinking about color e-ink's implications for textbook-reading college students, among other things.
But here's a question: Will the highly-championed e-ink display tech become the new equivalent of plasma TVs in the display world? Because if you remember, plasma was briefly the go-to tech for HDTVs. It had higher contrast and higher brightness than LCD, and it delivered an unquestionably better picture—much like the comparison between e-ink and LCD displays for portable devices. But LCD is taking over the TV world, and plasma's day is done for a number of reasons, one of which is improving LCD technology. Will e-ink in e-readers suffer the same fate? One can't help but recall the decades-old VHS vs. Betamax tech war, too.
Actually, it's probably a 50-50 bet on that. E-ink is facing some serious competition from the likes of alternative display systems like Pixel Qi's half-e-ink-alike, half-LCD tech. And despite all those claims about the issues of eye-strain when reading text from LCD for extended periods, LCDs are improving a lot. Particularly when you look at the high-quality benefits touted by the IPS LCD screen in Apple's newest device. And while e-ink's electrophoretic tech is getting a boost from PVI's research and development, then tech is unlikely to ever rival LCD for video-quality refresh rates. This is down to some hard and fast physics about the way the pigment particles in an e-ink pixel move around to activate or deactivate it.
We're not saying e-ink is going to disappear anytime soon, since despite its agonizingly slow refresh rates, it actually does deliver a lovely viewing experience and incredibly low power consumption. But e-ink's position as the key display tech in e-readers may be brief, simply because Apple's newest gizmo is going to drive some serious multi-purpose innovations into the tablet PC/e-reader market...and portable devices with an e-ink screen just won't match up.
PVI's innovations better be absolutely amazing—we're just saying.