E-readers: Market Prospects and Technology Developments

E-readers: Market Prospects and Technology Developments

By Dr. Harry Zervos, technical analyst, IDTechEx

E-readers, the first major market for printed electronics displays with their electrophoretic pixels on plastic film, are starting to edge into the color and even the video capability of tablet computers.  While these dedicated e-readers with their e-paper displays now face increasing competition from high-performance tablets with their high-resolution touch screen LCD displays, the rapidly improving alternative e-paper technology still has big advantages in low cost and low power consumption that should continue to drive demand in consumer mobile applications.  But continuing the fast growth of recent years will require identifying new markets as well.

E-Reader vs. Tablet: A Battle for Display Technology is Brewing

The initial launch of the first few tablet computer devices didn’t pose a particularly large threat to e-paper based devices: tablets were made available at much higher price-points, had different functionalities and were not necessarily focused on reading digital e-books and periodicals. Hence, they eventually ended up targeting a largely different segment of the consumer electronics market.

Recently, the balance was disturbed, mainly due to the launch of the Amazon Kindle Fire, a new tablet computer made available by Amazon at a very competitive price. Analysts claim that Amazon is initially selling these at a loss (estimates claim up to $50 loss per device sold), with the company aiming to profit from additional products and services sold to the consumer. The availability of this device at such a low price-point means that the big price difference between an e-reader and a tablet has now vanished; this could potentially lead consumers to choosing a multifunctional device (i.e. a tablet) at a small additional premium rather than an e-book reader with limited functionality.

Electrophoretic Displays are Not the Only Option

E Ink’s display platform, based on electrophoretic technology, has dominated the e-reader market since its official market launch in 2006. Demand has soared from 100,000 devices the first year, to around 28 million units in 2011.  

Other e-paper technologies have entered the arena in the meantime, each at different stages of development: KENT displays cholesteric LCDs have already found a successful application in the “boogie board e-writer.” Consumer electronics giant Samsung acquired Liquavista and is pushing the development and commercialization of the company’s display technology based on the principles of electrowetting. Mirasol, with its MEMS-based technology, has already showcased demonstrators and prototypes while other companies such as Opalux are introducing entirely new technologies in the market place (the company is developing photonic crystal materials for flexible displays). All these new developments in the e-paper space could disrupt E Ink’s dominance in the next few years.

E-Ink Developments

As the company with the highest profit margins in the consumer electronics space, E Ink is also working hard at developing its technology further: important milestones include the introduction of color displays in 2010 with further on-going work on optimizing color sharpness and the on-going development work in order to increase switching speeds and achieve the necessary levels to demonstrate full video capabilities.

At the same time, E Ink is extending its reach into new markets: use of e-reader technology for leisure reading has seen tremendous growth in the years since the launch of the first devices but new potential territory is business reading as well as education/text book reading.  Text books for schools in specific offer a very large potential opportunity, and are expected to reach sales that are double those for leisure reading. Cambridge University spin-off Plastic Logic is already trialling e-readers for schools in Russia. As reported in the news recently, the company is making the PL 100— a large-screen e-reader targeting the education market, available to select schools, for children aged 12-14 years old.

Market Forecasts to 2017

IDTechEx forecasts for the e-reader market are given below, using two different scenarios, one being more conservative than the other.  In the conservative case, there’s a delay in the uptake of e-paper technologies in new markets, in which case, the overall market remains limited to mostly leisure reading. The more optimistic scenario gives the prospects for growth, assuming that both textbook reading and business reading applications see significant uptake in the next few years.

Market Forecasts to 2017: Two different forecast scenarios described.

Number of e-readers sold

a. Number of e-readers sold

Corresponding revenues

b. Corresponding revenues

 Source: IDTechEx 

Improvements in the performance of e-book readers are also taken into account, with these being mostly focused on better switching speeds and incorporation of high quality video capabilities (from 2017 onwards) and better color rendering for colour versions of  e-readers.

At the same time there’s going to be growth in e-paper technologies in a variety of other market segments too, including posters and signage, smart cards, even other types of personal electronics (such as mobile phones or watches) and  electrics (e.g. displays on white goods). Further into the future, and once performance levels have been reached that can compete with other high-end electronics, incorporation of e-paper technologies into tablets, laptops or even televisions is also envisaged. At that point, and having become able to reach market sizes comparable to that of the LCD industry, displays and backplanes will also become competitive in price when compared liquid crystal displays.

 IDTechEx’s Printed Electronics/Photovoltaics USA 2011 conference and tradeshow, in Santa Clara, CA (www.idtechex.com/peUSA) on November 30 – December 1 will feature focused sessions on electronics paper technologies and the future of these rapidly changing display markets, with presentations from companies such as E Ink, Opalux, Polymer Vision and Plastic Logic. 

SEMI Global Update readers can get a 30% discount by registering online at www.IDTechEx.com/peRegister using the code PEU11SEM.  

More market forecasting data for e-reader technologies is included in the IDTechEx report “E-Paper Displays: Markets, Forecasts, Technologies 2011-2021” (www.idtechex.com/epaper). This report gives the necessary insight into the technologies, applications and prospects for growth for several different types of technologies and describes market segments including e-readers, other portable electronics as well as poster/signage and retail applications.

November 8, 2011