Move over paper books, e-books may soon need shelf space too

Technology upgrades bring new applications for digital paper. Photo: (Sony Corp.)

DOTHAN, AL, May 15, 2013 — The demise of paper as a publishing medium is still a long way off, but the new digital technologies are picking up speed in terms of practical applications.

Sony just announced a prototype tablet in a 13.3-inch size that uses e-ink technology and allows a user to write on the screen like a conventional paper notepad. Writing with a stylus has been around for LCD screens for a while, but applying it to e-paper is unique, especially on a large-format screen the same size as A4 paper. The Sony notepad, due for commercial release about March 2014, is the largest commercial format for digital paper to date.

Sony reported it will test the new device at several universities in Japan before developing it as a fully functional consumer product. Since the device can double as an e-book reader with the added ability to write margin notes, Sony’s testing strategy seems like a smart move. Academia has been asking for that kind of capability right along. The tablet is not intended to compete with full-function tablets and its success will likely depend on the cost. Sony has a long history of charging top dollar for its products.

The digital paper used for the tablet was developed jointly with a small company called E-ink, and the new, larger format has been dubbed Mobius. As tiresome as it is for technology firms to attach what they regard as clever names to products, this one shows promise of leading the way into the next generation of e-ink products. Aside from the size factor, Mobius is also bendable and has potential applications for news, signage and book publishing.

If hardware prices were to drop far enough, it is possible that books could again emerge from the cyber world as solid objects to be sold, re-sold and swapped as in the world of paper. While some might still prefer having one, costly device like a tablet that does many things, having one, inexpensive device that does one thing could re-invigorate bookselling at brick and mortar stores.

A big thing missing from e-readers has been color, but that may change soon since Amazon just purchased Liquavista from Samsung. Liquavista was originally under Phillips, but in 2006 was acquired by Samsung to develop hybrid screens that combine both e-ink and LCD technology in a process called electrowetting. Samsung has since lost interest, but the technology itself is apparently alive and well with potential applications for printing and signage.

Amazon is the undisputed king of the e-reader market and it will be interesting to see if a color version of the Kindle is in the offing for the future.

Digital paper has not gone unnoticed by the copier market. Ricoh, a major manufacturer of copiers, printers and office equipment, announced it has developed a new e-paper with better color reproduction than is currently available for newsprint. Their technology uses electrochromism, which uses electric power just to change colors in screen material, not to light an entire display like an LCD. That means very low power consumption and long display life.

The way newspapers were depicted in the Harry Potter movies might not as far-fetched as we initially thought.

What does all this have to do with books? Pretty much everything. The first move away from paper was the e-book, which is still growing in popularity but is limited mostly to all-text works because e-readers and tablets cannot handle large format, color illustrations. E-paper could one day mimic real paper at a fraction of the cost of today’s tablets and e-reader devices. Imagine, for example, a version of an oversized art book on tabloid-sized digital paper with full-color reproductions of great works of art.

Staying with the same example, one day it might even be possible to produce an entire high-resolution art book on a single sheet of poster-size, pliable e-paper that could mount on the wall. On Monday you turn to the page with a Monet, and change it a few days later to a Dali painting or, just flip the pages while relaxing on the couch. Books printed in a large-scale digital paper format could be readily used in the classroom as well as at home. If you get tired of that book, take it down, roll it up and put it on the shelf with your paper books.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the physical format of books migrated from codex format back to scrolls? That might be a good topic for Japanese university students to consider while taking notes on the new Sony digital notepad.

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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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