Books, e-books and the e-paper chase

Last November Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle near the campus of the University of Washington. More than two decades after it pioneered online book sales—and initiated the e-commerce disruption of the retail industry—the $550 billion company seemed to be taking a step backward with its “brick and mortar” Amazon Books.

Amazon Books opened in Seattle on November 3, 2015
Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle on November 3, 2015

However, Amazon launched its store concept with a nod to traditional consumer shopping habits, i.e. the ability to “kick the tires.” Amazon knows very well that many customers like to browse the shelves in bookstores and fiddle with electronic gadgets like the Kindle, Fire TV and Echo before they make buying decisions.

So far, the Seattle book store has been successful and Amazon has plans to open more locations. Some unique features of the buying experience have been extended to the book store. Customer star ratings and reviews are posted near book displays; shoppers are encouraged to use the Amazon app and scan bar codes to check prices.

Amazon’s book store initiative was also possibly motivated by the persistence and strength of the print book market. Despite the rapid rise of e-books, print books have shown a resurgence of late. Following a sales decline of 15 million print books in 2013 to just above 500 million units, the past two years have seen an increase to 560 million in 2014 and 570 million in 2015. Meanwhile, the American Booksellers Association reported a substantial increase in independent bookstores over the past five years (1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations in 2010).

Print books and e-books

After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales
After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales

The ratio of e-book to print book sales appears to have leveled off at around 1 to 3. This relationship supports recent public perception surveys and learning studies that show the reading experience and information retention properties of print books are superior to that of e-books.

The reasons for the recent uptick in print sales and the slowing of e-book expansion are complex. Changes in the overall economy, adjustments to bookstore inventory from digital print technologies and the acclimation of consumers to the differences between the two media platforms have created a dynamic and rapidly shifting landscape.

As many analysts have insisted, it is difficult to make any hard and fast predictions about future trends of either segment of the book market. However, two things are clear: (1) the printed book will undergo little further evolution and (2) the e-book is headed for rapid and dramatic innovation.

Amazon launched the e-book revolution in 2007 with the first Kindle device. Although digital books were previously available in various computer file formats and media types like CD-ROMs for decades, e-books connected with Amazon’s Kindle took off in popularity beginning in 2008. The most important technical innovation of the Kindle—and a major factor in its success—was the implementation of the e-paper display.

Distinct from backlit LCD displays on most mobile devices and personal computers, e-paper displays are designed to mimic the appearance of ink on paper. Another important difference is that the energy requirements of e-paper devices are significantly lower than LCD-based systems. Even in later models that offer automatic back lighting for low-light reading conditions, e-paper devices will run for weeks on a single charge while most LCD systems require a recharge in less than 24-hours.

Nick Sheridon and Gyricon

The theory behind the Kindle’s ink-on-paper emulation was originated in the 1970s at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California by Nick Sheridon. Sheridon developed his concepts while working to overcome limitations with the displays of the Xerox Alto, the first desktop computer. The early monitors could only be viewed in darkened office environments because of insufficient brightness and contrast.

Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate to create an image
Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate with changes in voltage to create an image on the surface

Sheridon sought to develop a display that could match the contrast and readability of black ink on white paper. Along with his team of engineers at Xerox, Sheridon developed Gyricon, a substrate with thousands of microscopic plastic beads—each of which were half black and half white—suspended in a thin and transparent silicon sheet. Changes in voltage polarity caused either the white or black side of the beads to rotate up and display images and text without backlighting or special ambient light conditions.

After Xerox cancelled the Alto project in the early 1980s, Sheridon took his Gyricon technology in a new direction. By the late 1980s, he was working on methods to manufacture a new digital display system as part of the “paperless office.” As Sheridon explained later, “There was a need for a paper-like electronic display—e-paper! It needed to have as many paper properties as possible, because ink on paper is the ‘perfect display.’”

In 2000, Gyricon LLC was founded as a subsidiary of Xerox to develop commercially viable e-paper products. The startup opened manufacturing facilities in Ann Arbor, Michigan and developed several products including e-signage that utilized Wi-Fi networking to remotely update messaging. Unfortunately, Xerox shut down the entity in 2005 due to financial problems.

Pioneer of e-paper Nick Sheridon
Pioneer of e-paper, Nicholas Sheridan

Among the challenges Gyricon faced were making a truly paper-like material that had sufficient contrast and resolution while keeping manufacturing costs low. Sheridan maintained that e-paper displays would only be viable economically if units were sold for less than $100 so that “nearly everyone could have one.”

As Sheridon explained in a 2009 interview: “The holy grail of e-paper will be embodied as a cylindrical tube, about 1 centimeter in diameter and 15 to 20 centimeters long, that a person can comfortably carry in his or her pocket. The tube will contain a tightly rolled sheet of e-paper that can be spooled out of a slit in the tube as a flat sheet, for reading, and stored again at the touch of a button. Information will be downloaded—there will be simple user interface—from an overhead satellite, a cell phone network, or an internal memory chip.”

E Ink

By the 1990s competitors began entering the e-paper market. E Ink, founded in 1998 by a group of scientists and engineers from MIT’s Media Lab including Russ Wilcox, developed a concept similar to Sheridon’s. Instead of using rotating beads with white and black hemispheres, E Ink introduced a method of suspending microencapsulated cells filled with both black and white particles in a thin transparent film. Electrical charges to the film caused the black or white particles to rise to the top of the microcapsules and create the appearance of a printed page.

E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox
E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox

E Ink’s e-paper technology was initially implemented by Sony in 2004 in the first commercially available e-reader called LIBRIe. In 2006, Motorola integrated an E Ink display in its F3 cellular phone. A year later, Amazon included E Ink’s 6-inch display in the first Amazon Kindle which became by far the most popular device of its kind.

Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink
Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink

Subsequent generations of Kindle devices have integrated E Ink displays with progressively improved contrast, resolution and energy consumption. By 2011, the third generation Kindle included touch screen capability (the original Kindle had an integrated hardware keyboard for input).

The current edition of the Kindle Paperwhite (3rd Generation) combines back lighting and a touch interface with E Ink Carta technology and a resolution of 300 pixels per inch. Many other e-readers such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Kobo, the Onyx Boox and the PocketBook also use E Ink products for their displays.

Historical parallel

The quest to replicate, as closely as possible in electronic form, the appearance of ink on paper is logical enough. In the absence of a practical and culturally established form, the new media naturally strives to emulate that which came before it. This process is reminiscent of the evolution of the first printed books. For many decades, print carried over the characteristics of the books that were hand-copied by scribes.

It is well known that Gutenberg’s “mechanized handwriting” invention (1440-50) sought to imitate the best works of the Medieval monks. The Gutenberg Bible, for instance, has two columns of print text while everything else about the volume—paper, size, ornamental drop caps, illustrations, gold leaf accents, binding, etc.—required techniques that preceded the invention of printing. Thus, the initial impact of Gutenberg’s system was an increase in the productivity of book duplication and the displacement of scribes; it would take some time for the implications of the new process to work its way through the function, form and content of books.

Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451
Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451

More than a half century later—following the spread of Gutenberg’s invention to the rest of Europe—the book began to evolve dramatically and take on attributes specific to printing and other changes taking place in society. For example, by the first decade of the 1500s, books were no longer stationary objects to be read in exclusive libraries and reading rooms of the privileged few. As their cost dropped, editions became more plentiful and literacy expanded, books were being read everywhere and by everybody.

By the middle 1500s, both the form and content of books became transformed. To facilitate their newfound portability, the size of books fell from the folio (14.5” x 20”) to the octavo dimension (7” x 10.5”). By the beginning of the next century, popular literature—the first European novel is widely recognized as Cervantes’ Don Quixote of 1605—supplanted verse and classic texts. New forms of print media developed such as chapbooks, broadsheets and newspapers.

Next generation e-paper

It seems clear that the dominance of LCD displays on computers, mobile and handheld devices is a factor in the persistent affinity of the public for print books. Much of the technology investment and advancement of the past decade—coming from companies such as Apple Computer—has been been committed to computer miniaturization, touch interface and mobility, not the transition from print to electronic media. While first decade e-readers have made important strides, most e-books are still being read on devices that are visually distant from print books, impeding a more substantial migration to the new media.

Additionally, most current e-paper devices have many unpaper-like characteristics such as relatively small size, inflexibility, limited bit-depth and the inability to write ton them. All current model e-paper Kindles, for example, are limited to 6-inch displays with 16 grey levels beneath a heavy and fragile layer of glass and no support for handwriting.

The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting
The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting

A new generation of e-paper systems is now being developed that overcome many of these limitations. In 2014, Sony released its Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) that is a letter-size e-reader and e-notebook (for $1,100 at launch and currently selling for $799). The DPT-S1 is based on E Ink’s Mobius display, a 13.3” thin film transistor (TFT) platform that is flexible and can accept handwriting from a stylus.

Since it does not have any glass, the new Sony device weighs 12.6 oz or about half of a similar LCD-based tablet. With the addition of stylus-based handwriting capability, the device functions like an electronic notepad and, meanwhile, notes can be written in the margins of e-books and other electronic documents.

These advancements and others show that e-paper is positioned for a renewed surge into things that have yet to be conceived. Once a flat surface can be curved or even folded and then made to transform itself into any image—including a color image—at any time and at very low cost and very low energy consumption, then many things are possible like e-wall paper, e-wrapping paper, e-milk cartons and e-price tags. The possibilities are enormous.

Genesis of the GUI

Thirty-five years ago Xerox made an important TV commercial. An office employee arrives at work and sits down at his desk while a voice-over says, “You come into your office, grab a cup of coffee and a Xerox machine presents your morning mail on a screen. … Push a button and the words and images you see on the screen, appear on paper. … Push another button and the information is sent electronically to similar units around the corner or around the world.”

Xerox 1979 TV Commercial
Frame from the Xerox TV commercial in 1979

The speaker goes on, “This is an experimental office system; it’s in use now at the Xerox research center in Palo Alto, California.” Although it was not named, the computer system being shown was called the Xerox Alto and the TV commercial was the first time anyone outside of a few scientists had seen a personal computer. You can watch the TV ad here:

The Alto is today considered among the most important breakthroughs in PC history. This is not only because it was the first computer to integrate the mouse, email, desktop printing and Ethernet networking into one computer; above all, it is because the Alto was the first computer to incorporate the desktop metaphor of “point and click” applications, documents and folders known as the graphical user interface (GUI).

Xerox Alto Office System
Xerox Alto Office System

The real significance of the GUI achievement was that the Xerox engineers at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) made it possible for the computer to be brought out of the science lab and into the office and the home. With the Alto—the hardware was conceptualized by Butler Lampson and designed by Chuck Thacker at PARC in 1972—computing no longer required arcane command line entries or text-based programming skills.

The general public could use the Alto because it was based on easy-to-understand manipulation of graphical icons, windows and other objects on the display. This advance was no accident. Led by Alan Kay, inventor of object-oriented programming and expert in human-computer interaction (HCI), the Alto team set out from the beginning to make a computer that was “as easy to use as a pencil and piece of paper.”

Basing themselves on the foundational computer work of Ivan Sutherland (SketchPad) and Douglas Engelbart (oN-Line System), the educational theories of Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert (Logo) and the media philosophy of Marshall McLuhan, Kay’s team designed an HCI that could be easily learned by children. In fact, much of the PARC team’s research was based on observing students as young as six years old interacting with the Alto as both users and programmers.

Xerox Alto SmallTalk desktop
An example of an Alto graphical user interface

The invention of GUI required two important technical innovations at PARC:

  1. Bitmap computer display: The Alto monitor was vertical instead of horizontal and, with a resolution of 606 by 808 pixels, it was 8 x 10 inches tall. It had dark pixels on a light gray background and therefore emulated a sheet of letter-size white paper. It had bit-mapped raster scan as a display method as opposed to the “character generators” of previous monitors that could only render alphanumeric characters in one size and style and were often green letters on a black background. With each dot on its display corresponding to one bit of memory, the Alto monitor technology was very advanced for its time. It was capable of multiple fonts and could even render black and white motion video.
  2. Software that supported graphics: Alan Kay’s team developed the SmallTalk programming language as the first object-oriented software environment. They built the first GUI with windows that could be moved around and resized and icons that represented different types of objects in the system. Programmers and designers on Kay’s team—especially Dan Ingalls and David C. Smith—and developed bitmap graphics software that enabled computer users to click on icons, dialogue boxes and drop down menus on the desktop. These functions represented the means of interaction with documents, applications, printers, and folders and thereby the user derived immediate feedback from their actions.
Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls and David C. Smith worked on the software programming and graphical user interface elements of the Xerox Alto
Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls and David C. Smith worked on the software programming and graphical user interface elements of the Xerox Alto

The Alto remained an experimental system until the end of the 1970s with 2,000 units made and used at PARC and by a wider group of research scientists across the country. It is an irony of computer and business history that the commercial product that was inspired by the Alto—the Xerox 8010 Information System or Star workstation—was launched in 1981 and did not achieve market success due in part to it’s $75,000 starting price ($195,000 today). As a personal computer, the Xerox Star was rapidly eclipsed by the IBM-PC, the very successful MS-DOS-based personal computer launched in 1981 without a GUI at a price of $1,595.

It is well known that Steve Jobs and a group of Apple Computer employees made a fortuitous visit to Xerox PARC in December 1979 and received an inside look at the Alto and its GUI. Upon seeing the Alto’s user interface, Jobs has been quoted as saying, “It was like a veil being lifted from my eyes. I could see the future of what computing was destined to be.”

Much of what Jobs and his team learned at PARC—in exchange for the purchase of 100,000 Apple shares by Xerox—was incorporated into the unsuccessful Apple Lisa computer (1982) and later the popular Macintosh (1984). The Apple engineers also implemented features that further advanced the GUI in ways that the PARC researchers had not thought of or were unable to accomplish. Apple Computer was so successful at implementing a GUI-based personal computer that many of the Xerox engineers left PARC and joined Steve Jobs, including Alan Kay and several of his team members.

In response to both the popularity and ease-of-use superiority of the GUI, Microsoft launched Windows in 1985 for the IBM-PC and PC clone markets. The early Windows interface was plagued with performance issues due in part to the fact that it was running as a second layer of programming on top of MS-DOS. With Windows 95, Microsoft developed perhaps the most successful GUI-based personal computer software up to that point.

First desktops: Xerox Star (1980), Apple Macintosh (1984) and Microsoft Windows (1985)
First desktops: Xerox Star (1980), Apple Macintosh (1984) and Microsoft Windows (1985)

Already by 1988, the GUI had become such an important aspect of personal computing that Apple filled a lawsuit against Microsoft for copyright infringement. In the end, the federal courts ruled against Apple in 1994 saying that “patent-like protection for the idea of the graphical user interface, or the idea of the desktop metaphor” was not available. Much of Apple’s case revolved around defending as its property something called the “look and feel” of the Mac desktop. While rejecting most of Apple’s arguments, the court did grant ownership of the trashcan icon, upon which Microsoft began using the recycling bin instead.

When looking back today, it is remarkable how the basic desktop and user experience design that was developed at Xerox PARC in the 1970s has remained the same over the past four decades. Color and shading have been added to make the icons more photographic and the folders and windows more dimensional. However, the essential user elements, visual indicators, scroll bars, etc. have not changed much.

With the advent of mobile (smartphone and tablet) computing, the GUI began to undergo more significant development. With the original iOS on the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple relied heavily upon so-called skeuomorphic GUI design, i.e. icons and images that emulate physical objects in the real world such as a textured bookcase to display eBooks in the iBook app.

Comparison of iOS 1 to iOS 7 user interface
Comparison of iOS 1 to iOS 7 user interface

Competitors—such as those with Android-based smartphones and tablets—have largely copied Apple’s mobile GUI approach. Beginning with iOS 7, however, Apple has moved aggressively away skeuomorphic elements in favor of flattened and less pictorial icons and frames, etc.

Multi-touch and gesture-based technology—along with voice user interface (VUI)—represent practical evolutionary steps in the progress of human-computer interaction. Swipe, pinch and rotate have become just as common for mobile users today as double-click, drag-and-drop and copy-and-paste were for the desktop generation. The same can be said of the haptic experience—tactile feedback such as vibration or rumbling on a controller—of VR and gaming systems that millions of young people are familiar with all over the world.

It is safe to say that it was the pioneering work of the research group at Xerox PARC that made computing something that everyone can do all the time. They were people with big ideas and big goals. In a 1977 article for Scientific American Alan Kay wrote, “How can communication with computers be enriched to meet the diverse needs of individuals? If the computer is to be truly ‘personal,’ adult and child users must be able to get it to perform useful activities without resorting to the services of an expert. Simple tasks must be simple, and complex ones must be possible.”