E-books: The flexible future

First impressions of a new prototype e-book reader from Plastic Logic--one of the first consumer electronics gizmos designed to flex rather than break when bent.

Tech Culture

Interesting news from the DemoFall conference held this week in San Diego:

Plastic Logic--a company founded to commercialize electronics built on flexible plastic substrates--demonstrated a prototype e-book reader (not yet named) and announced that it plans to ship this product in the first half of next year. You can read the press release for yourself.

Plastic Logic's prototype e-book reader
Plastic Logic's prototype e-book reader Plastic Logic Limited

This particular gizmo is very attractive. It uses a large, flexible electronic paper display based on technology from E Ink (the same company that makes the displays for Amazon.com's Kindle and Sony's Reader), but the device overall is remarkably thin and light.

And the whole thing is somewhat flexible, so it won't break if it gets slightly bent in a backpack or briefcase. Flexible doesn't mean invulnerable, but it's a lot better than the brittle glass displays of existing e-book readers.

Check out this video from DEMOfall, in which Plastic Logic CEO Richard Archuleta demonstrates the prototype. I see some minor problems in the prototype's display--some dead lines and odd drawing glitches--but nothing that should interfere with the scheduled launch.

More importantly, even as a prototype, the display's contrast ratio seems to be better than that of the Kindle or Reader, mostly by virtue of the white being whiter--I'd have to make a direct comparison to be sure, though. I also see all of the critical features I want in an e-book reader: good display resolution, reasonable performance, and a touch-sensitive screen to support document markup and an on-screen keyboard. The Kindle's keyboard just isn't good enough.

In fact, the prototype appears to have only a few physical controls; essentially all of the user interaction takes place through the touch screen. It's just a smooth white rectangle, like a thin pad of writing paper: about 8.5 inches by 11 inches by 0.3 inches, with a 10.7-inch screen and a total weight less than a pound.

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Pricing is said to be "competitive," and battery life is described as "days"; we'll have to see what happens to these estimates by the time the product ships. The Kindle has "days" of battery life, but sometimes, it's just a few days, and I have been occasionally disappointed to find mine dead when I wanted to use it.

At DemoFall, Plastic Logic spun the gizmo as a "business reader," which may be an attempt to justify a premium price for the large display and superior physical robustness, but I think that it has more potential as a consumer product. Business users have laptops already. Plastic Logic may find ways to position its reader as a complement to the laptop--I can think of a few ways myself--but the consumer market opportunity is far larger.

Other bloggers have overreacted somewhat by predicting that the Plastic Logic reader will kill the Kindle, but that isn't going to happen. There's more to providing a good e-book experience than industrial design. The Kindle is very well supported by Amazon, and it has that unique free-forever wireless-data link. But if Plastic Logic can find a partner with ties to the publishing industry and solve the wireless problem, the result would be a serious challenge to Amazon.

I suspect that it's no coincidence that Plastic Logic is talking about bringing its gizmo to market "through partners around the world." Could this be how Barnes & Noble will take on the Kindle? I wouldn't be surprised.

Overall, I think that this is the first of the third-generation e-book readers: as far beyond the Kindle and Sony's Reader as those devices were advanced over first-gen products such as the Rocket eBook and Franklin eBookMan.

I'm hoping to talk with the folks at Plastic Logic about this gizmo and its other product and technology plans. I'll be back with an update, once I do.