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E-paper and the new computer revolution

The very future of computing could be tightly linked to electronic paper technology. Forget about the Amazon Kindle, or anything from Sony. Anything less than electronic paper has zero long-term future. Why? Because e-paper saves trees and everything else is just so much land fill…

The very future of computing could be tightly linked to electronic paper technology. Forget about the Amazon Kindle, or anything from Sony. Anything less than electronic paper has zero long-term future. Why? Because e-paper saves trees and everything else is just so much land fill…

a sheet of electronic paper, displaying a graphic similar to an eye testBack in September 2006, I talked about how blogging would become mainstream at or about the same time as wider wireless coverage and greater pressures for recycling.

That time is now. The pressure now being exerted on the mainstream media is driving many daily newspapers into weekly publications, while many are just fading away.

This fundamental shift in our consumption of information and how we now expect to be able to both interact and directly influence what is considered newsworthy is creating the perfect environment for electronic paper technology.

The future of content delivery

I can see a time when paper derived from wood is no more. Even recycled paper will be so frowned upon and so expensive as to be economically impractical as a material.

the flexibility e-paper technologyI can see a future where people take their electronic paper from a pocket or a bag, unroll it and begin reading the news as it updates, live, in their hands.

I can also see live and interactive video, as well as micro payments for newspaper and magazine subscriptions, the first examples of editorially driven non-annoying advertising and seamless social media tools, to share, vote and comment on the things we find have sent to us by friends and colleagues, all in real time.

Imagine live blogging, or Twitter-style tools that allow us to comment directly on the news. Here’s where mass media becomes so deeply democratized that we begin to shape popular news in real time.

The debut of electronic paper technologies will usher in ubiquitous computing in a way that standard desktop and laptop computers couldn’t, because of their decade-old user interfaces and strange, non-intuitive metaphors.

Here in Britain, the government are pressing for greater broadband access, and many of their agencies are moving their operations on-line. But what’s the point if only a small fraction of the population have access to a computer? The introduction of e-paper technology, combined with ubiquitous wireless access and a departure from old computing metaphors could change that.

Making the future happen

However, for its part, the technology behind e-paper is still not quite there yet. Close. Tantalizingly so, but not ready for prime time. One other ingredient previously missing from the technological mix was micro-payments, which a lot of people at or around the late two thousand and six time frame were either unfamiliar or uncomfortable with. We have both PayPal and Apple’s iTunes Store to thank for breaking down that particular perception barrier. Additionally, before e-paper can become a reality, a number of economic issues need to addressed, too. Right now, advertising is taking a severe kicking, so a new business model is required.

I remember the debut of Sony’s Reader, a precursor to the Amazon Kindle. I was as non-plussed then about the Sony Reader as I am about the Amazon Kindle now. I honestly have no idea what all the excitement is about; neither product inspires or impresses me.

You can’t roll a Kindle up. You can’t put a Kindle in your pocket. If you want to carry one around, you need a bag. So why not just have a laptop? Which can do a ton more things, and has a colour screen.

A long-standing question I hear in different forms and guises is: when will we no longer print to paper? When e-paper is a viable alternative. The principle problem with the Kindle and its ilk is for me extremely simple: a Kindle needs an instruction manual and a regular book doesn’t.

Right now, we have Apple’s iPhone ushering in a more mainstream take on touch screen technology. Apple have given dignity to an existing technology that has, for the most part, totally languished in the consumer technology arena. But how did Apple manage this? By fundamentally changing the way you & I interact with the core components of the device.

If you look at the earlier touch screen laptops, sporting Microsoft Windows, they were just an iterative and expensive alternative to the touch pad or the mouse. The underlying touch technology itself was utterly wasted.

Apple changed that. And now people are comfortable with the idea of the pinching and pulling images and web pages to zoom in and out. I’m sure Apple looked at a whole range of finger actions, but found that the pinch zoom action was by far the most intuitive. People don’t touch things with one finger at a time, we grab with both hands, which is exactly the kind of interaction our ape brains expect.

If we transpose those metaphors onto e-paper technology, we have ourselves a worthy replacement for paper books and magazines, one that adds to and enhances the experience in ways that the Kindle actually detracts from, because of their cumbersome keys and unwieldy and ugly design.

Right now, there’s talk of Apple introducing a new larger format iPod Touch. There’s been talk of such a device for a long as I can remember, way back when a mac tablet device looked commercially viable, until Steve Jobs killed the idea off.

The fact of the matter is, people believe what they see at the movies. We’ve seen the Minority Report, and we’ve seen the work of Jeff Han, which looks very close to what we saw Tom Cruise doing. If you have a good memory of the film, you’ll also recall people on a train reading from e-newspapers.

Over the long term, such devices will evolve into ever slimmer, more versatile devices that are so ubiquitous and obvious to use as to become invisible technologies; there when you need them and hidden away when not required.

And the phrase “personal computing” will be an anachronism, buried under the rubble of history, like all those computers we use now will one day be just so much landfill…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

3 replies on “E-paper and the new computer revolution”

Cool post out here. This can help us preserve our environment. I think it’s the best thing to use so we won’t be cutting down trees just to produce our paper to be used to write newspaper.

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