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The KND Kindle Chronicles Interview: Going Back to the Roots and Forward to the Future of the eBook Revolution – Len Edgerly Interviews Sri Peruvemba, chief marketing officer, E Ink Holdings

By LEN EDGERLY, Contributing Editor

Most of the big news in eBooks these days comes out Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, but the eBook Revolution actually started right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Prof. Joseph M. Jacobson of the M.I.T. Media Lab and one of his students, Barrett Comiskey, filed the original patent on October 25, 1996 for “Nonemissive displays and piezoelectric supplies therefor.” In layman’s terms, they invented the electronic paper that made the Kindle and similar eReaders feasible for the mass market.

Jacobson and Comiskey, along with three other partners, in 1997 founded a company based on their invention. They named it E Ink Corporation, and they located it in Cambridge, just five miles down the road from the Media Lab. It took 10 years and $200 million in investment before they had a product ready to sell.

Sri PhotoMy first visit to E Ink was in November of 2008. The Kindle was still in its first of now five generations. I wanted to understand the technology behind the Kindle, so I made an appointment to interview Sri Peruvemba, vice president of marketing.

Since then, the price of a Kindle has fallen from $399 to $69, and E Ink’s workforce in Massachusetts has grown from 75 employees to about 300.

The company in 2009 was purchased by one of its business partners, Prime View Int’l Co. Ltd (PVI), based in Taiwan. PVI since then has changed its name to E Ink Holdings, and its U.S. headquarters is still here in Cambridge.

Peruvemba is now based in California but happened to be in Cambridge this week, so I was able to schedule another in-person interview. As we started, he remembered back to what life at E Ink was like in the early days.

“We were probably losing about a million dollars a month,” he recalled. “We were perfecting a product that didn’t quite exist, and we were going after a market that didn’t quite exist.”

When the market for eReaders developed, E Ink’s displays became the default standard for the new industry.

More than half of E Ink’s employees in the U.S. are in research and development, and the company continues to draw heavily from local universities, especially M.I.T.
It’s a great American and New England success story. I particularly love the fact that E Ink makes 100 percent of its electronic displays 90 minutes away in South Hadley, Mass..

To explain E Ink’s technology, Peruvemba has come up with an effective teaching tool. It’s a clear plastic ball about the size of a golf ball, and it contains white and black spheres floating in a clear liquid.

“When we started, our aim was to replace printed paper,” he begins. The E Ink process makes tiny pigment particles out of the same materials used to make paper white and ink black. The particles are charged and encased in slightly larger capsules.

“By applying voltage across the capsule, we can cause the white or black pigment to rise to the surface,” he explains.

We’re talking very small objects in this description. Peruvemba’s golf ball display represents a capsule about the diameter of a human hair.

Five years ago the displays in eReaders like the Kindle had resolution of about 150 dots per inch (DPI). The current generation of displays boasts resolution of 212 DPI.
“A lot of people think one of these microcapsules is a pixel,” he said. “It is not. Under each pixel, we have dozens of microcapsules. So we have a lot more resolution to give in the future, and I think it’s going to keep getting better for a while.”

I’ve heard about the microcapsules before, and I always assumed that they were the delicate part of a Kindle screen. I thought the microcapsules would crater if, for example, you tossed a satellite phone on your Kindle as Eric Loss did by mistake while sailing solo around the world.

Peruvemba explained to me that it’s actually a one-millimeter sheet of glass below the microcapsule layer that can break under impact. This glass does a good job as a conductor of electricity and is used in 95 percent of all LCD screens. On smaller products, plastics are beginning to replace the glass, and when that is available for computer and eReader screens, they won’t be so vulnerable to flying sat phones.
Peruvemba believes we are still in the early days of the revolution sparked by E Ink technology.  Although the penetration of eBooks in trade publishing is significant, there is still a great deal of potential growth in the textbook market.

“I believe every single book everywhere in the world will all become electronic,” he said. “Whether it’s E Ink technology or some other is not the point.”

From a technology perspective, there is more resolution to achieve on E Ink screens, as well as increases in speed of display. Animation is already possible, and video speeds will one day be feasible. And there is still work being done on color E Ink screens, so stay tuned for developments there.

My time at E Ink US Headquarters convinced me that the soul of a startup is still driving these inventors to keep improving their technology, which means the revolution is truly just getting started.


lenKindle Nation Weekender columnist and contributing editor Len Edgerly blogs at The Kindle Chronicles.

A Detailed Roadmap for Kindle 3, 4, 5, & Beyond: Touchscreen, Flexible Large-Form, Notepad, Color, & Voila: The Kindle Reader & Mobile Net Device

By Stephen Windwalker, publisher of Kindle Nation

CEO Jeff Bezos was characteristically coy, during Thursday’s Amazon earnings conference call, when he was asked if the company “might unleash the computing power of the Kindle” by adding features that could make the Kindle competitive with netbook computers: “We’re really focused on purpose-built reading devices. We wouldn’t talk anyway about what we’re going to do in the future.”

Amazon may be coy, but CEO Russ Wilcox of e-Ink, the Cambridge, MA company that manufactures the revolutionary display technology used by the Kindle and the Sony eReader, recently provided the Boston Globe‘s Robert Weisman with a detailed, forward-looking chronology in which he laid out exactly what features we can reasonably expect in the Kindle 3.0 and beyond during 2009, 2010, and 2011. Although Amazon has always (during the Kindle’s brief 17-month history) emphasized the Kindle’s primary purpose as an electronic reading device, the company has not been shy about including other features that could, if optimized and augmented over time, appeal to consumers with “convergence device” or “laptop replacement” on their minds. Follow the very detailed Wilcox roadmap and we are looking, within three years, at the Kindle 4 or 5 as “an ideal mobile internet device.”

Perhaps this seems speculative, you say? But think this through with me:

If the e-Ink technologies that Wilcox describes move from prototype to product on the timetable that he describes so specifically, wouldn’t Amazon be foolish not to adopt them for the Kindle? After all, while I have always been clear about my view that the Kindle hardware is a bit of a Trojan horse, a means to Amazon’s real end of maintaining and expanding its leading role as a content retailer as we transition toward more and more digital content, it is essential for Amazon to hold onto the Kindle’s hardware market position for at least the next half-decade if it is to continue to shape and set standards for the Kindle content market. The inherent business propositions are straightforward both for e-Ink and for Amazon: e-Ink would not be investing the R&D money if its most important customer were not interested in the features, and Amazon can’t afford to turn its back on hardware device features that will be adopted by hardware device competitors (even if those devices end up selling Kindle Store content, as I expect they will).

So, here’s what we have to look forward to:

2009 Kindle-Compatible TouchTablet

  • Although bloggers have been buzzing for months about a large-form Kindle (first in 2008, and then, when that didn’t happen, in 2009), most of this buzz has been self-feeding, and I admit that I’ll be happily surprised, but still surprised, if there is a large-form e-Ink Kindle display in 2009. Maybe he needed to be more reticent about events closer to launch date, but Wilcox didn’t even mention 2009. He was very specific in mentioning 2010 and 2011.
  • Much more likely: a large-form, backlit, energy-intensive, high-end Kindle-compatible iPod TouchTablet with a price point in the $599-$699 range.

2010 Kindle

  • All the features of the Kindle 2, plus
  • Touch Screen with display-based keyboard, character recognition, and handwriting stylus for annotation and other writing-intensive activities including email, notes, and scribbling
  • Faster refresh
  • Flexible large-form e-ink display for effective rendering of textbooks and newspapers

2011 Kindle

  • All of the above
  • Plus a full-color display for effective rendering of magazines, cookbooks, comic books and graphic novels

2012(?) “Kindle Ideal” Mobile Internet Device

  • All of the above
  • Plus a full-screen, full-featured, full-color, fast-refresh, fast-loading browser
  • Flexible so you can fold it up and carry it with no more weight or footprint than the Kindle 2
  • Low electricity usage so that it can go for days between battery charges
  • And, dare we dream that its wireless web connection would still be free?

Among other things, I can’t help but mention that if all this comes to pass, the dumbed-down Netbook phenomenon of 2009 will be so over by 2013.

Sometimes, I know, I get accused of shilling for Amazon, or being a Kindle bore, when I throw words like “amazing” and “revolutionary” at the Kindle. But it has been this vision of the Kindle’s future — implicit in nearly every word of the Russ Wilcox video below — that I have been imagining, and writing about explicitly — since the Kindle was launched in November 2007.

Here is the Wilcox video:

That’s the hardware. Can I get a “Wow?”

But I would be remiss if I did not also point out that there is still so, so much unrealized potential in terms of Kindle software and Amazon’s relationships with Kindle customers and content providers, including:

  • Content-driven social networking that would empower readers and authors while providing a nice viral marketing force for Kindle content
  • The obvious need for Amazon and publishers to liberate Kindle content from the restrictive guck of DRM (digital rights management), which has little or nothing to do with copyright protection and amounts to the biggest betrayal yet, or ever, of Amazon’s “customer experience” mantra
  • A more courageous and customer-driven stance in the face of the narrowly based opposition to the Kindle’s text-to-speech feature
  • The need to address a bizarre, uncharacteristic, unethical and legally questionable approach to Kindle content promotion and publishing platform support, in which Kindle staff have shown a bias toward mainstream publishers while failing to provide even rudimentary support for independent authors and publishers, and may, if other reports are to be believed, be employing the kind of two-tier royalty approach that could eventually lead to federal scrutiny

No doubt it is a lot to manage, but it seems ironic that a company that has never manufactured hardware before would be doing so well on the device itself, yet so poorly on myriad issues in which Amazon has proven expertise that the device’s bed could ultimately be fouled. I hope not.

* * *

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The author was the first to note authoritatively that Amazon sold half a million Kindles by Fall 2008, and the first to predict the Kindle for iPhone App.