Kindling a Revolution: E Ink’s Russ Wilcox on E-Paper, Amazon, and the Future of Publishing

Almost as soon as Amazon released the Kindle e-book reader in November 2007, I settled in to wait for the Kindle 2. Like many other observers, I thought Amazon had made a good first stab at building a usable e-book device, but that it needed a sleeker profile, better ergonomics, new features such as text-to-speech capability, and a lower price point. Well, 15 months later, Amazon has thoughtfully delivered on most of my requests. From all accounts, the Kindle 2, which was unveiled on February 9 and began arriving on customers’ doorsteps this week, is such a giant improvement that it makes the first Kindle look like a clunky lab prototype. (Now if they’d only consider lowering the $359 price tag.)

But there’s someone who has been waiting a lot longer than I have for the Kindle 2, and for the huge buzz it’s creating around e-reading—about 11 years longer, in fact. It’s Russ Wilcox, co-founder and CEO of E Ink, the Cambridge, MA company behind the low-power, high-contrast “electronic paper” screen that is the Kindle’s main selling point. I had a chance to meet with Wilcox on Tuesday—and to play briefly with a Kindle 2, which had just arrived that morning. My first question was about whether any of E Ink’s founders thought it would take so much time, and so much money, to bring e-paper to the mass market.

After all, E Ink was launched in 1997, and has had to raise more than $150 million—mostly from big industry players like Intel, Motorola, Philips, Hearst Interactive Media, and Japan’s TOPPAN Printing—to transform e-paper from a drawing-board concept into a manufacturable product. Conceived at the MIT Media Lab, E Ink’s material consists of a layer of tiny fluid-filled microcapsules that contain positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles. Applying a voltage across the microcapsules pushes the white particles to the top and pulls the black particles to the bottom, forming white pixels that are clearly visible without the backlighting needed in traditional liquid-crystal displays. Applying the opposite voltage across the microcapsules creates black pixels. The material is “bistable,” meaning the particles stay in place after a voltage is applied—which is why the batteries in the Kindle, the Sony PRS-700, and other devices with E Ink screens last so long.

Amazon Kindle 2It sounds simple enough, but Wilcox says the company spent six years getting the technology to the point where Sony could use it in the world’s first e-paper-based e-book reader, the Librié, introduced in 2004. And it’s taken another five years for Sony, Amazon, and their competitors to create e-publishing ecosystems that consumers are interested in inhabiting (meaning not just the devices, but the content available for them and the mechanisms for purchasing, storing, searching, and annotating that content).

So while E Ink has been happy to leave the media spotlight to Amazon this month, the Kindle 2 and the near-iPhone-scale excitement that has greeted it represent an important coming-of-age for the 100-employee company. It’s perhaps the first moment when the founders’ vision for a world of publishing sans paper has seemed feasible. E Ink continues to explore applications for its e-paper displays outside the realm of publishing—Wilcox and his team showed me examples like a remote key fob for high-end automobiles, a credit-card-sized one-time password device for logging into a secure computer network, and a decorative cell phone cover—but the company’s core mission, Wilcox told me, is to “provide the world’s best digital reading experience.” That means creating better displays for handheld e-book devices, but it also means designing larger screens—and eventually, color versions—that would be better for magazine-style or newspaper-style content.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty over the prospects for such technologies. Many potential Kindle buyers (myself included) are balking at the device’s steep price tag, and if Amazon comes out with a rumored tablet-sized version aimed at the college textbook market, it’s sure to be even more expensive. (When I asked marketing vice president Sriram Peruvemba whether E Ink is working with Amazon on such a product, his answer was “No comment.”)

But over the long term, Wilcox expects that simple economics will drive more and more print-media companies toward electronic platforms, and that E Ink will be there to scoop up their business. When Silicon Alley Insider calculated recently that the New York Times could save more than $300 million every year if it stopped printing and delivering its newspaper and simply gave every subscriber a free Kindle, it was with tongue firmly in cheek. But for Wilcox, such suggestions are deadly serious. “What we’ve got here is a technology that could be saving the [global print media] $80 billion a year,” he insists.

Below are some of the other interesting outtakes from my conversation with Wilcox.

On the early days of E Ink, and the importance of being naive:

I co-founded E Ink with three fellows out of MIT and with Jerry Rubin, the founder of Lexis-Nexis. I wrote the business plan in my study, and got copies bound at Staples, and mailed it out through Kinko’s, and all that. I did all the things you should apocryphally do when you’re an entrepreneur. At the time, we had no idea it was going to take so long. It may be that naivete is your friend when you’re starting out in such a daunting venture. We understood that it was probably going to take two years to make something that people wanted to buy. And in terms of making something that looked good, we did that. But what we didn’t see in the beginning, and learned over time, was that it would take another two years to go from something that looked good to something that would look good for many years under all operating conditions—in other words, to achieve stability and robustness. And then it would take another two years to get something that you could reproducibly manufacture, at an affordable cost point.

On finding a sustainable business model:

We went through the bubble bursting like everyone else. We had several different applications on the table. And we had to figure out how we were going to have a big impact on the world with a very small amount of cash. We came up with a grand vision of doing “radio paper”—a complete device and a service. [Essentially, the Kindle, but about eight years before it was feasible—Eds.] But it became clear that, even after spending $100 million, we still had … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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27 responses to “Kindling a Revolution: E Ink’s Russ Wilcox on E-Paper, Amazon, and the Future of Publishing”

  1. The Kindle is great, even the original one. I use it every night. E-Ink is an amazing breakthrough; thanks so much the inventors! See

  2. Robert B says:

    “Many potential Kindle buyers (myself included) are balking at the device’s steep price tag ($359)…”

    With paperbacks at $8 to $10 apiece now, you’d probably have to be someone who reads 100 paperbacks in their life starting today to have it make sense. Personally, I read 100 paperbacks in _6 months_, so yeah, I’m getting a Kindle 2.

  3. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Wow, Robert. That’s, like, a book every two days. When do you find time to work?! Actually, I’ve heard the same thing from other readers, including the previous commenter, Dan Weinreb: i.e., that if you are a true bookworm who likes to take lots of material with you wherever you go, the Kindle is ideal.

  4. joeshuren says:

    Wade, please get a Kindle 2 and also an OLPC XO-1 and compare them in e-book mode. Consider that Pixel Qi says it will come out with screens even better than the XO-1, using the same LCD production lines as now, at much reduced prices, and with huge power savings. Consider that the screens will be as readable as the Kindle’s but much more useful as they already have color and fast refresh. Consider that the screen technology will not be used to lock in proprietary business model like Amazon’s.

  5. Jason says:

    I love the whole “will save the world xx billion a year” comments they repeatedly mention. In fact, this will put a lot of people out of business- there’s lots of jobs in the printing/paper industry. Besides, what’s wrong with reading a book the same way your grandfather did?

  6. Jaya Kumar says:

    joeshuren, That’s an interesting question that you asked about comparing “Kindle 2 and also an OLPC XO-1”. I have both displays, specifically, an E-Ink Vizplex display and an OLPC-XO-1 and the XO is in reflective mode. The E-Ink vizplex display is orders of magnitudes better in terms of contrast, reflectivity and viewing angle. You then go on to say “that Pixel Qi says it will come out with screens even better than the XO-1, using the same LCD production lines as now, at much reduced prices, and with huge power savings.”. That’s nice, lets talk about that once its actually here and available.

  7. Jaya Kumar says:

    Jason, you said “what’s wrong with reading a book the same way your grandfather did?”. I won’t take that argument to its logical conclusion by talking about caves, horse drawn buggies and whale blubber lighting. There are numerous reasons for preferring e-paper to paper. The environmental and monetary cost of producing paper, even recycled paper via harvesting, branching, transportation, pulping, refining, bleaching, printing, and more transportation is simply unsustainable. The fact that we can do that using wireless and an electronic display is just plain progress. Yes, folks who are in those industries will encounter change. That’s a good thing.

  8. Salvatore A. Buttice says:

    I personally use my old Palm T|X to read my ebooks using Mobipocket. Love the thing, although I wish it had a better battery life. It’s more compact and easy to carry (on a belt clip), so I don’t have to lug this huge square around with me wherever I go. And it’s also useful for other things than just reading books.

    As for if it’s worth it, really it probably isn’t. I use it for convenience but you still pay 4-8 dollars per paperback, and 15-25 for books released in hardcover. And that is PURE profit, since the hosting compared to publishing/shipping/etc. is pretty cheap.

    I still like dead tree editions of books. I still buy them, and still put them up on shelves in my house. I feel pretty safe with a paperback, and if I screw it up I can get another cheap. Lose 1 – 512meg SD card though, and my 500 books are history if there’s a HD problem (which has happened to me. Do you know how long it takes to redownload 500 books?)

  9. Robert B says:

    @Wade Roush: Curse my fast reading ability :( I typically end up reading 1/4 to 1/2 of a book just before falling asleep.

  10. Gnar says:

    Last month I was excited about eInk, and then I saw the $3000 dev-kit price available in only one size.

    Then I became un-interested.

    If they don’t want to see their product succeed, and by that I mean shutting out the very people who would be most likely to create innovative uses, then I applaud them.

    100 dollar gumstick + 2900 dollar eink display equals why bother. May as well buy a Kindle and just use it rather then innovate.

  11. Rick ills says:

    I have the Sony reader. The claim of over 7,000 page turns only holds if you do it in 2 weeks. I use the reader for referencing and every time I open it up the battery’s dead. Doesn’t hold a charge or more than 2 weeks. Pooh Pooh.

  12. yjkkk says:

    I have several questions/comments want to share with you guys:
    1. Do you have any idea what kind of fluid E-ink is using to fill the Kindle display? If it is flammable and harmful, is it so funny to claim green and enviromently friendly product?
    2. I do not believe that Kindle has one order of magnitude high of contrast compared with reflective LCD. They are 10 vs 4. Not 40 vs 4.
    3. The higher price of Kindle is mostly linked to the poor film yield of E-ink manufacture. In near future they are most likely will not improve it due to the inherent difficult of their manufacture process.
    4. E-ink has difficult to get nice full color film due to its inherent technology challenge. They can use color filter, but the color is so dull. Without color and video speed. This kind of display will out of market soon or later