Pulp and Paper Canada

Electronic paper and the e-books:; A real or imagined threat to paper?

June 1, 2001  By Pulp & Paper Canada

“The last paper edition of the New York Times will appear in 2018” – Dick Brass, [Microsoft]; “The e-book is the most significant development in the book business since the advent of the paperback… …

“The last paper edition of the New York Times will appear in 2018” – Dick Brass, [Microsoft]; “The e-book is the most significant development in the book business since the advent of the paperback… resulting in enormous social and cultural impact” – Michael Wolff [author]; “…the first real change to the technology of the book in 500 years” – Paul Drzaic [E-Ink/Lucent]; “E-paper is the key….the last person to enjoy reading on a tablet was Moses” – Robert Steinbugler, [IBM].

These sound bites from the techy community sound deeply threatening to the traditional paper community, but closer scrutiny indicates that while these technologies will certainly garner some presence for their unique attributes, they will not replace paper any time soon.


Reports from the first conference devoted solely to the forthcoming transformation of the book world by digital technology forecast radical changes in the writing, distribution and reading of printed material. The e-book phenomenon is already here with many interesting attributes such as storing hundreds of titles, enabling network experiences, up-datable, self-learning, scalable content, search-ability, customized reading. These attributes are useful for study, learning, and accessing data archives, but of little value for leisure reading where the author leads the reader through a predetermined path or “the story.”

The e-book niche will likely be in education textbooks, abridged business books and technical manuals, but not novels and stories. The products are different and they will co-exist.

However, e-paper with wireless typesetting is hailed as the Holy Grail by the techy community and there are many big players looking at this market [see www.eink.com]. Now, the product looks like a flexible plastic sheet with embedded spheres. The spheres can be activated electrically to show black or white. The image is rather crude and so far has only been shown as a changeable in-store display sign. However, new research into electrically conducting plastic is likely to show significant improvements. Current status is the promise of 100 dpi resolution in about five years [E-Ink/Lucent]; viewing angle restrictions; no color; challenges for durability, reliability, printing registration, legibility in bright light; and lack of stiffness [a paper handle-ability attribute] are all issues that need to be overcome. This technology is likely to find its way first into high-value applications where the quick image change feature and a curved profile are needed — perhaps signs, labels, specialty papers — products where a high ad dollar will pay the freight. Mainstream paper substitution seems remote, although the possibility of special “inserts” into magazines is a possibility. One of the key attributes of a newspaper is the large area format, which consumers appreciate for “browsability” and advertisers appreciate for brand awareness, store traffic generation and “stickyness”. The potential e-newspaper product has been described; but, in reality, if this were ever likely to be developed it is hard to imagine it being more than a niche product or novelty. That said, how could the paper community react? The e-book for educational texts and manuals is a special product that paper cannot compete with, but paper storybooks will remain where the special tactile and image features of paper could be further enhanced. For ad driven printing and writing papers, the “bar” is already high for e-paper to emulate; this bar should be raised! That is, improvements in graphics, paper texture, tactile and handle-ability properties.

To be successful, all new products must satisfy “The Compelling Driver Rule” — which states that quality must be clearly seen to go up and/or cost clearly seen to go down, by the eventual consumer market. For e-books there is a need for their “library-in-a-box” attribute for textbooks, reference texts, and databases. However, e-paper for magazines and newspapers looks more like a classical tech-push product looking for a compelling “problem”. It could find a niche as an insert page with wireless interactivity for other content in a magazine. E-paper also looks promising for electronic displays in personal hand held devices such as PDAs and watches, or as signs for retail or public service.

Why is this important?

E-books and e-paper will take-over some of the space currently occupied by paper — the question is how large a space will this be? E-paper has a long way to go to duplicate the high quality graphics possible with paper. The strategy for paper is to “raise the bar” with progressive improvements in graphics and consumer-use attributes, while at the same time promoting what is unique about paper products. There is also significant opportunity to incorporate passive hyperlinks into magazines and newspapers for referencing and information depth, using small pen readers — thus taking some of the perceived e-paper advantage away.P&PC

Alan R. Procter can be reached at futureviews@alanprocter.com. For more information, visit www.futureviews.net

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