TAIWAN REVIEW, July 2010 issue
This Ink Is for Reading
Prime View International's displays are putting Taiwan at the forefront of a publishing revolution.
BY DAN BLOOM
A s digital technology continues transforming the media world day by day, a Taiwanese company has taken on an important role in the shift with a technology called E Ink.
Although right now you might be reading the words of this article on glossy paper in a printed magazine, publications are also beginning to release editions meant for viewing on sleek electronic book readers, or e-readers, many of which already use E Ink to render digital text. Products such as the Kindle from Amazon.com, Inc. use E Ink to give book and periodical readers that choice, and media experts have forecasted that the nascent literary shift from paper to screen appears likely to accelerate in the near future.
If, as the pundits predict, the future belongs to digital publications, then an electronic display company in the Hsinchu Science and Industrial Park in northern Taiwan stands to profit enormously from the shift. For Scott Liu (劉思誠), the 61-year-old CEO and chairman of Prime View International Co. Ltd. (PVI), which is now the owner of the E Ink technology that turns more than 90 percent of all e-readers into captivating electronic reading devices, the timing is perfect. Besides the Kindle, a host of other e-readers also use E Ink for their screens, including devices made by local companies such as Book11.com, Innoversal Communications Inc. and GreenBook Co., Ltd.
PVI agreed to purchase E Ink Corp., the Boston-based company that developed the digital text technology, in late 2009 for US$215 million. The deal was later sweetened, according to industry sources, with a grant of 120 million shares of PVI convertible stock. When Russell Wilcox, E Ink's former CEO, resigned in Boston last March, he had nothing but good words to say about new parent firm PVI and Scott Liu. “The acquiring company... has an excellent CEO,” Wilcox told the Boston Globe after announcing his resignation, adding that with E Ink under PVI's corporate umbrella, the subsidiary's future was sound.
The purchase of the American company looks like a shrewd move for PVI, as over the last four years, E Ink has seen revenues grow from 80 percent in 2006 to 250 percent in 2009, according to industry sources. “This is a creative win-win agreement for both PVI and E Ink,” Liu says.
Before the acquisition, PVI was E Ink's largest customer, representing more than 50 percent of the US company's revenue. With the purchase of E Ink in hand, PVI now appears well positioned to lead the global expansion of e-reading, as more publishers of textbooks, newspapers, magazines and books are diversifying into digital content. “E Ink's end customers will benefit [from our combined strength], with improved supplies, competitive prices, faster product development and local support across the globe,” Liu says.
E Ink's headquarters is still based in Boston--in Cambridge, to be exact, not far from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University--but the company is now part of PVI, which in turn is part of the Yuen Foong Yu Group. Yuen Foong Yu has a long history in Taiwan, beginning operations in 1935 during the period of Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). The company's founders were Taiwanese and its owners still are. Yuen Foong Yu began making toilet paper and paperboard in the 1930s and, with the help of Japanese technology, began producing coated paper products in the 1950s. Now the company, which was one of the island's first mass-producers of paper and toilet paper, looks set to become the world's first mass producer of e-paper through its PVI subsidiary.
PVI's purchase has also reinvigorated E Ink's operations, as the US subsidiary has hired some 100 new production workers at its display manufacturing facility in western Massachusetts, just a two-hour drive from Boston, as well as added some 50 scientists and engineers to the research and development team in Cambridge.
Scott Liu's life and career have followed a trajectory similar to that of many other prominent Taiwanese businessmen. Born in Taiwan in 1949, Liu earned his undergraduate degree at a local university and then traveled overseas for graduate studies at Columbia University in New York. After returning to Taiwan with a freshly minted Ph.D. under his belt, Liu was recruited by Yuen Foong Yu president Ho Shou-chuan (何壽川), who later persuaded Liu to take the helm at PVI and reorganize the subsidiary.
Although the name E Ink is a shorthand phrase for electronic ink, the underlying process really doesn't use ink at all. Engineers at MIT pioneered the technology when they discovered that electricity could shift the position of positively and negatively charged particles--very tiny black and white balls--that were suspended in a fluid. E Ink's engineers pushed the development of the technology by creating software that enables devices to manipulate the particles with an electric current.
It is that simple, and that complex, too.
The original goal of creating e-books was to make the reading experience as similar as possible to that of printed books, an ideal reflected in the marketing campaigns of e-reader industry giants Amazon and Sony. While liquid crystal displays used as computer monitors require backlighting, E Ink screens do not, rendering crisp black text against a natural white background.
The market for today's black and white e-readers is already huge and likely to get bigger, industry forecasters predict. According to E Ink sources in Boston, more than 5 million e-book readers were sold in 2009, with annual sales expected to grow to 100 million by 2018. There are now more than 50 different kinds of e-book readers on the market worldwide, with more to come, indicating that a true revolution in reading could be in the making.
Is e-Reading Still Reading?
As popular e-reading devices like Amazon's Kindle and the “nook” from US book retailer Barnes & Noble become an integral part of the evolving digital culture, some observers have expressed concerns about how learning to read on such devices might impact young children. Anne Mangen, a reading specialist at the National Reading Center at Stavanger University in Norway, published a widely read academic paper in the United Kingdom in 2008 that targeted the differences between reading on paper and reading on screens. Mangen's views have catapulted her to the forefront of an international debate about the pros and cons of reading on the two mediums. The fundamental “experience of reading on a screen is different from reading on paper, although in what ways and to what extent must be specified in each instance, situation and purpose of reading,” Mangen says. “However, whether reading on a screen is better or worse than reading on paper depends on a range of variables--the reader's prior experience with both formats, the purpose and situation of the reading act, the type and genre of text, the disposition of the reader, and other variables.”
When asked about the impact of changes in how books, newspapers and magazines are distributed and read, Mangen says that “the current shift from reading on paper to reading off screens represents a vast literary shift, the implications of which--short-term and, in particular, long-term--we are not yet aware of.”
Mangen also believes that it is important for academics to do more research on the impact of e-reading. “Unlike print texts,” she wrote in her 2008 paper, “digital texts are ontologically intangible and detached from the physical and mechanical dimension of their material support, namely, their computer or e-book (or other devices, such as the PDA, the iPod or the mobile phone).”
Linden T.C. Lin (林載爵), a veteran book publisher in Taipei and head of the annual Taipei International Book Exhibition, believes that printed books and e-books can co-exist. When asked whether he was concerned that the digital age might do away completely with printed books, the bookish, middle-aged Lin merely smiles and says “We're still using candles for some things, aren't we?”
Textbooks may be the next publishing sector to experience the impact of e-reading, as some schools in North America and Europe are now talking about issuing e-readers to students. According to David Chen (陳賜賢), a senior industry analyst at the Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute in Taipei, “the usage scope of e-readers has already expanded from leisure reading to work document reading and study-related reading.” For PVI and E Ink, making inroads into educational publishing could lead to strong growth, technology reporter Michael Fitzpatrick wrote recently in the Boston Globe.
Paul Biba, editor of US-based Teleread.org, a proponent of national digital library systems, says that Taiwan “has now become the 'home' of the global e-reader industry, in addition to the fact that many of the most innovative products in the industry are coming from that island nation. Future advances in Taiwan will no doubt drive the industry forward.”
When asked if PVI needs to be wary of new technologies being developed by other firms, however, Biba says that “PVI's E Ink is only black and white for now, and from most media reports, color won't come until [later]. In addition, PVI has admitted that its color screens will be more pastel than vivid. New technologies from Pixel Qi and Mirasol promise vivid color and low e-ink-type battery life. Both technologies will be introduced this year, and if they succeed, they could very well cut into PVI's market share.”
Michael Miller, a senior vice president for technology strategy at US-based Ziff Brothers Investments and the writer of the influential Forward Thinking blog, agrees that PVI faces challenges in the field. “Today, we when think of e-readers, the current black-and-white E-Ink technology comes to mind,” he writes. “A year from now, there may be many other choices.”
Strong PVI competitors in the e-reader display field include LG Display, a subsidiary of South Korean electronics manufacturing giant LG Electronics, and SiPix Imaging, Inc., a subsidiary of Taiwanese display giant AU Optronics Corp. SiPix is developing a promising digital ink technology that using Microcups, which are tiny containers that hold minute quantities of materials such as fluid and particles that can render text. In light of such competing technologies, PVI may be forced to cut its prices after it loses its first-to-market advantage, industry observers say.
PVI is not standing still, however, in the face of fierce competition from other electronic ink competitors, as well as that posed by the growing adoption of tablet devices such as Apple's iPad. One area the local company is working on is injecting color into the monochrome displays of current e-readers, according to industry forecasters. At a flat panel display conference in the United States earlier this year, E Ink employees told reporters that color e-readers with low-power displays would be hitting stores soon.
PVI is also working to deploy E Ink technology to render text on devices other than e-readers, Scott Liu says. Imagine a device the size of a credit card with a small screen that runs on E-Ink technology and can be used for more than two years on a single battery charge. That's the future, Liu says, and other products could include smart cards, mobile phones and so-called “smart surfaces” that can change their physical properties in response to external stimuli.
Other new E Ink displays under development include flexible screens and those that are capable of rendering video, Liu says. In the past, video on e-readers has looked jerky because the display response time was too slow. Liu, however, predicts that response times will improve enough to allow for video support on products later this year. PVI has also developed touch sensors that sit behind the display, rather than using conventional touch panels that can obscure a display's brightness, which could give e-readers a finger-based interface similar to that of the iPad, industry observers say.
For now, one of the biggest questions looming over PVI headquarters--and one that industry watchers around the world are keen to hear the answer to--is whether the company might someday enter the e-reader market with its own device. According to the company's CEO, the answer is no.
“PVI ... has a corporate philosophy that aims to deliver revolutionary products, user experiences and environmental benefits through advanced technology development,” Liu says. “This vision has led to PVI's continuous investments in the field of e-paper display as well. PVI will remain dedicated to e-paper related research, development and manufacturing, but we won't produce any PVI-branded e-readers. Since Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other well-known e-reader firms are our customers, we won't be making an e-reader that would in any way compete with our valued customers.”
In the saga of E Ink and e-paper, things are changing so fast that every week seems to bring a new e-reading gadget to the market. PVI's Liu sees the trend as confirmation of his view that the story of the future will be written in electronic ink, and he is bent on bringing that vision to the world. Thanks to the forward-looking Taiwanese technology firm and its US subsidiary, reading may never be the same.
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer in Taiwan.