Saturday, October 29, 2016

E-Ink Readers

Ever since e-ink came out, I do an annual pilgrimage into the world of e-ink and e-readers and come away disappointed. This year is not really any different. Well, okay, it's actually worse because various people out there who run e-reader blogs are now saying e-ink is a dying technology. You know it's bad when it comes to that. That's kind of sad because the industry came SO incredibly and painfully close to minimizing or even eliminating power hungry backlit displays. Had smartphones been delayed just one year (i.e. people had said "meh" to iOS as they should have), we would likely have color e-ink tech today that rivals LCD. That's rather frustrating. But now I need to digress and cover a few core problems with e-ink that has ultimately relegated it to the background.

One of the core problems of e-ink is the refresh rate. A screen refresh in e-ink land is generally a giant flash to black to white to various bits of images popping in and out. It's a distracting seizure-inducing affair. Fujitsu actually somewhat solved the e-ink seizure-inducing screen flashing issue rather elegantly back in 2011 but apparently no one noticed:

There in that video, you can see an initial switch to white and, as the screen is redrawn, a black bar slides across the screen. The poor refresh rate of that e-ink display is somewhat hidden by the animation. Also, on a less important but still important note, Fujitsu had color e-ink in 2011 that looked pretty decent-ish. Sigh.

Another core problem with e-ink is that the physical size of what can be obtained for under $500 is rather small. The standard today is a 6-inch "phablet" (neither phone nor tablet). 6" e-ink displays do not work at all for reading technical documentation. Sure they are portable, but without a sufficient screen refresh rate and only a grayscale screen, they are rather impossible to use. As e-ink displays get larger, the cost also seems to go up exponentially to the point that buying a LCD laptop/tablet combo frequently makes more sense.

The final core problem with e-ink is that it first got sucked into devices that display books and then somehow never really showed up anywhere else. The book vendors that produced the majority of the devices used proprietary, closed platforms, which translated to no developers for apps for those platforms. A consumer buys the device and then was stuck with whatever the vendor decided was good for them, which, as most developers know, usually doesn't have a good end result. Devices that cost a lot more and do one thing but happen have the hardware to do many things are only slightly more horrible than kitchen gadgets that do one thing. Yes, I just compared your favorite e-reader to a toaster. Someone, somewhere at Amazon and similar book vendors just happened to make the inept decisions to lock their devices down and not put sensible OSes on them, thus limiting their usefulness.

At any rate, I went on my annual pilgrimage this year with knowledge of the results of my efforts of previous years. And came away with the same amount of disappointment as usual. In short, not much has changed and there are fewer devices on the market and the remaining devices only received incremental improvements. Before I get to this year's devices, here's a brief history of several e-ink related technologies and related devices that seemed awesome for a while but either never made it to production or did make it to production but were killed off for unknown reasons:

The Qualcomm Mirasol display was extremely interesting until Qualcomm basically killed it off. Mirasol was something vastly different from e-ink and the battery chugging active displays that we are familiar with and it even had a refresh rate of 15 fps and a slightly washed out color display, which was and is good enough for lightweight video playback. Supposedly a device with Mirasol had a battery life similar to e-ink. It also managed to make it into real-world production in the forms of the Kyobo e-reader, which was only released in South Korea and never made it to the U.S., and the Toq, which was a very silly decision for a smartwatch. IMO, Mirasol failed to reach a wide audience due to bad marketing decisions on Qualcomm's side of things. Google is big enough to still attempt something serious here with Mirasol - even if they just produce developer units running stock Android.

Amazon owns a small company called Liquavista. It is a similar display tech to e-ink but the demos of the tech show near real-time refresh rates and it supposedly had actual color reproduction! Liquavista calls it an Electrowetting Display (EWD), which uses colored oils instead of the usual ink bits whatever that actually means. Their website is weird but they were acquired and became an Amazon company somewhere along the line (2013?). My guess is that either Amazon intends to leverage the technology OR bury it. Given that it hasn't shown up in anything yet after four years, Liquavista might have also oversold what it can do (i.e. lied) and therefore it will never see the light of day. In either case, this is lame. When potentially awesome tech dies, there needs to be information about why it didn't work so that maybe someone else can see a solution and pick up where they left off and then succeed.

E Ink - the actual company that started this part of the tech industry - introduced the "color" e-ink display at some point, but instead of using CMYK balls as everyone was hoping for, they opted for a color filter. The end result of that effort was a very dark/very dim display that could no longer produce white but rather only achieving a gray color of sorts and essentially killed off the idea of color e-ink for everyone. It was also too little, too late. Fujitsu's display, on the other hand, seemed like a legitimate implementation of color e-ink. Again, I never really saw anything come from Fujitsu but that one demo at some conference, which ultimately amounts to vaporware. On the other hand, the color e-ink display that E Ink introduced only made it into one commercial product - two extremely similar and expensive educational tablets - the jetBook Color and jetBook Color 2 - with colors so muted, it is hard to tell whether or not they have any color at all. This past year, E Ink showed off an updated version of their color e-ink product that looks better than the original versions but unless Amazon takes a liking to it for the Kindle, we can consider that mostly to completely dead.

As a software developer, I really only want devices I can write software for. That, of course, means that the device needs to be running an OS that I can push binaries onto or write code on directly. It also needs to be an OS that has a reasonably decent sized community around it. Since I don't generally want to try typing on an e-ink display, the options are basically limited to the most popular mobile device OSes because you push binaries from a desktop OS to them. That, of course, means something running Android with the Google Play store and has Android Studio capability. That requirement immediately eliminates about 99% of the e-ink devices that were ever released, including the entire Amazon Kindle e-ink series, which apparently runs some extremely touchy/picky non-Android OS that falls apart rather quickly if you root it. And, before anyone complains that I'm wanting a tablet, if I wanted a full blown tablet, I already have one with stock Android on it. My primary purpose for an e-ink (or e-ink like) Android device is quite different.

And now we reach the results of my search for this year. I ran into two devices this year that are sort of interesting but ultimately useless: The Energy Sistem Ereader Pro HD and the 13.3" Good e-Reader. The former is something that is reasonably affordable but is only a 6" screen. It is running Android, but not stock and Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) is kind of old at this point, but it does have Google Play. The Good e-Reader has a 13.3" screen but, based on several of the videos I watched, also has an extremely serious screen flicker issue reminiscent of early e-ink, is running an even older version of Android, is approximately 5 times as expensive as the Energy Sistem Ereader Pro HD, and isn't shipping yet because it's one of those crowdfunded operations. The various Onyx Boox devices also hit my radar for a bit but even the latest is inferior to the Energy Sistem Ereader Pro HD. And, of course, none of these devices has a color display. Therefore, the results of my search once again are rather underwhelming.

It is still my opinion that Mirasol has the biggest potential for something to happen. Qualcomm just needs to get their act together. The underlying tech behind Mirasol is so vastly different from LCD and e-ink that it has the potential to dramatically transform mobile computing. The first company that produces a device with a 7" to 10" tablet form factor with a Mirasol + capacitive touch display running a stock build of the latest version of Android for around $200 to $300 gets my money. For the first iteration, it can also weigh up to one pound if that helps.