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Amazon is working on displays that Apple and Samsung can’t match

Phillips, Samsung and an array of startups have taken a crack at electrowetting displays, but Amazon may finally have a way to make them competitive with LCDs.
By Christopher Mims
USAPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When Amazon unveiled the unique display panel of its Paperwhite Kindle e-reader, it revealed two impressive facts: The first is that Amazon’s internal hardware engineering team is more sophisticated than Amazon’s line of decent but not so revolutionary tablets and e-readers would suggest. The second is that the company had been incubating the display tech in the Paperwhite for almost a decade. This second fact is right there in the promotional video for the Paperwhite display, in which Jay Marine, vice president of Kindle at Amazon, says “in many ways, we’ve been working on this for 8 years.” (Update: It’s possible Marine was implying that Amazon was working on the Paperwhite as a whole for 8 years, and not this display technology.)

Amazon is increasingly a company that, like Apple and perhaps the newly Google-ified Motorola, is good at understanding how to sell technology not as an end in itself, but in service of the user’s experience. And the Paperwhite display is a great example of this. While Amazon likes to obfuscate this fact, the underlying black and white electronic ink display in the Paperwhite isn’t made by Amazon, but its old partner (and holder of many patents on the technology) E Ink.

Amazon’s light guide technology is found in no other tablet or e-reader, and could be an enabler of other, largely neglected types of displays.

What makes the Paperwhite display so high-contrast is that Amazon developed its own “light guide,” a unique layer of plastic that sits on top of the traditional display from E Ink and shoots light down at it, which then reflects back into a person’s eyes, and therefore appears to make the E Ink display look higher contrast than usual, hence the impression of black text on a white background, instead of the usual dark gray text on a light gray background that normally plagues e-readers.

Lightguide + color display = LCD-like performance

A world in which LCDs are the only kind of displays is one Jeff Bezos doesn’t want to live in.

But what’s the use in having the world’s best electronic ink display if tablets are eating the market for e-readers? Market research firm IDC estimates that in 2012, sales of e-readers declined 28% from 2011, to 19.9 million units, while tablet sales grew 78% in 2012, exceeding 100 million units. Even Amazon knows that the days of e-readers as more than a niche product are (apparently) numbered, hence the company’s push to unveil a traditional 7″ tablet that is competitive with the current best-of-breed Google’s Nexus 7.

The answer lies in a recent acquisition by Amazon of a company called Liquavista, which makes full-color displays that are reflective, like e-ink, but fast, like the LCD screens in our phones, tablets and televisions. The technology works on a principle called electrowetting, in which each pixel on the screen consists of tiny capsules of an oil that respond to electrical charge. (If that sounds like an improbable basis for a display technology, keep in mind that LCD displays are after all comprised of liquid crystals, which were first discovered in the 1888 and took an eternity to develop into a commercially viable state.)

Liquavista’s technology has been around forever, in technology terms, having first been revealed in 2003 in a paper in the journal Nature (pdf). At the time the company was owned by Phillips, which spun off Liquavista in 2006, and then sold it to Samsung in 2011, which subsequently flipped the company to Amazon just two years later.

Why would a company in possession of a promising, power-sipping, full color display technology get passed around so often? One answer could be that none of the companies that owned it had any idea how to make the technology compelling when compared to bright, backlit LCD displays, which are a mature technology that looks great pretty much anywhere but in full sunlight.

Enter Amazon’s light guide technology, which already makes the Paperwhite display bright and high-contrast. Overlaid on a color panel like the one developed from Liquavista, the potential is obvious: The result would be a fast, bright, high contrast display—but one that uses a quarter as much power as an LCD panel. It would also, in the parlance of e-reader true believers, be “easier on the eyes” because it’s a reflective display, like paper, rather than a back-lit one, like a television.

Pushing toward the ultimate e-reader: Paper that moves

Pushing a droplet of oil around a display at 60 frames a second sounds crazy until you find out how LCDs work.

One of the reasons investors love Amazon despite the company’s devotion to not making any profit is that CEO Jeff Bezos is “willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.” That is, unlike other publicly traded companies, Bezos has attracted the sort of investor who believes that Amazon is valuable because the company continues to grow its revenue and market share, and he has thereby rendered himself immune to the usual pressure to deliver profit sufficient enough to justify the company’s stock price. It’s therefore reasonable, given that it apparently took his Kindle team eight years to realize the Kindle Paperwhite, to see Amazon’s $100 million acquisition of Liquavista, and its potential combination with the technology Amazon built into Paperwhite, as the sort of long-term play for which Bezos is famous.

This means there is no way of knowing when, or even if, Amazon will unveil a reflective, full-color display of its own devising. Amazon has demonstrated in the past that it will go as far up the technology pipeline as it needs to in order to accomplish its goals, and even once considered getting into the business of making its own microchips. Amazon continues to rely on its partner E Ink to create black and white displays, but E Ink’s ability to innovate appears to have run its course, with the company publicly admitting that its technology is now mature enough that not much more can be done beyond making it lighter and more flexible.

And with his acquisition of the Washington Post, Bezos has a new incentive to breach new heights in displays—something as light as paper but infinitely more versatile. Bezos has said before that he thinks print is going away but journalism is forever, so it’s hard to imagine that he acquired a print newspaper with the idea that it would continue to be delivered in that medium. Other companies are also trying to turn electrowetting display technology into a viable business, so it seems that, like the development of the LCD display, which began in the US but was not perfected until the technology was acquired by Korean companies like Samsung and LG, this is the sort of technology that could take a long time to develop and will eventually give rise to an ecosystem of competing manufacturers.

If Amazon is first to market with this display technology—and given the current state of competing reflective color display technologies like Mirasol, it seems likely—Amazon could produce tablets with unique properties—like long battery life and amenability to being used outdoors and in natural light—which not even Apple and Samsung could match. That would sketch out a future in which Amazon licenses this technology or even sells panels directly to competitors that once trounced its e-readers with tablets. And it would be an odd future, indeed.

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