Hardware as the driving force

Background

It has now been just over 3 years since Apple redefined hardware paradigms by releasing their iPad. Hundreds of millions of sales and a cannibalized PC and laptop market later, it’s hard to imagine that there were people who initially doubted the impact the device would have, but there were, and they had good reasons to doubt, given the device’s lack of any physical input keys leading many to believe it could never successfully challenge laptops for form or usability.

But the new form factor that emerged with the release of the iPad has radically redefined what it means to be a publisher. It was never one of Apple’s primary aims to target the iPad towards people who may have wanted an e-reading device. The selling points as marketed were always more rich-media orientated (films, TV shows, Youtube etc.), but this is just one of the myriad of ways in which hardware can disrupt industries ancillary to, and dependent upon it. As a result, it’s useful to discuss what’s on the horizon for tablet devices and hardware as a whole, as a way of better anticipating what the possible impact could be on our own industry.

Display technology

One of the most exciting possibilities of technologically driven change in the mobile device market is that of “tablets” and “e-readers”, devices which are currently distinct in their primary selling points, converging at some point. This has been something touted as far back as 2010 when San Bruno based Pixel Qi revealed their transflective screens that could alternate between a low-power based, “e-ink” type display and a more high-fidelity display. Although initial excitement about its purported “e-ink killing” capabilities, these transflective screens have never materialized beyond a few speciality devices, most likely due to high cost. As with OLED however, it’s important to remember that costs can be driven down rapidly the moment a big manufacturer starts showing interest in high volume orders, so transflective screens, and the possibility of them facilitating a “merger” between e-reading and tablet devices, remains a possibility.

In this same vein, but employing a slightly different approach, in a patent issued in 2012 Amazon employed a dual screen approach with an e-ink display on one side and an LCD on the other, whilst it may seem like a rather clunky approach to the problem, it represents a firm commitment at a hardware level from one of the “big four” in Silicon Valley to bringing the two types of devices together.

Alongside this, Qualcomm have been working on their Mirasol technology for a few years now, which aims to reproduce the long battery life and easy-on-the-eyes approach of e-ink, albeit in color through the use of intoferometric modulators. Taken together with transflective screens, this means the likes of Apple and Amazon now have multiple types of display technology as potential options for any future device.

”Bendable” memory, “bendable” devices and other considerations

Displays technologies then are moving towards the concept of a single device being able to reproduce the best aspects of e-ink and high-fidelity tablet devices. What this means for publishing is that “tablet” devices will supersede e-readers by replicating low power-consumption e-ink displays (perhaps even in color), bringing the simple-conversion digital novel market under the same broad umbrella as more rich-media intensive epub3/app-based publications. This process of simplifying things for the end-user, and reducing the need for two devices for particularly avid consumers of the digitally printed word will likely spur even more growth in digital publishing.

The other area that will undoubtedly have a huge impact on mobile devices as a whole is that of using graphene memristors to create flexible silicon, more colloquially known as “bendable memory”. A working prototype was demonstrated by Korean scientists at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in 2011. The implications of this technology are broad ranging, but insofar as they apply to mobile devices, Samsung gave an illustration of what was possible when combined with flexible plastic OLEDs in January of this year with their “bendable phone”. Considering that one of the aims of tablets and e-readers has become to create a pleasant reading experience in a tactile, hands-on sense, bendable devices will become more attractive to prospective readers, especially given their increasing resemblance to real-world paper as they become thinner and lighter.

The other hardware component to factor in is the CPU. With increasingly power-efficient chips in use and in production, the next step for mobile devices are mobile-chips that can tailor their output to whatever the specific task at hand is, working in conjunction with the above technologies, this allows for some significant improvement to battery life, even when very high-resolution screens (e.g. retinal) are in use. NVidia’s variable SMP architecture, already in use in some of their Tegra chips, is a good illustration of this kind of technology in practice.

Conclusion

It’s firmly apparent from conceptual hardware developments that tablets will subsume the unique selling points of e-readers at some point, through a number of new display technologies that can replicate low-power and high-resolution approaches, rendering e-readers themselves a redundant technology, or perhaps more appropriately, turning tablets into fully fledged e-readers in a way they were not perhaps before. This may be preceded by an “intermediate” stage of convergence in the form of Amazon’s dual-screen device, or it may not, that depends mostly upon the per-unit manufacturing costs of making a single-screen device employing a technology like transflective displays over the next few years as compared to the per-unit cost of a dual-screen device, in addition to the receptiveness of the market of course.

On a more speculative level, bendable tablets on a consumer level are still some years away, but the mobility and increasingly light-weight form-factors that these technologies can enable will propel digital publishing growth even further along, possibly capturing previously untapped markets and ensuring that the fusion between rich media content and print-replicated content grows more comfortably, particularly for digital magazines, for which many consumers still prefer the printed word.

Expect to see many more headlines on the “radical redefinition” of publishing on account of new hardware paradigms in the years to come, the initial wave of tablets were devices in their infancy, it is the mature wave, that employ these technologies, that will fully define the marketplace.

Categories: Industry Research

2 replies

  1. Well put. While some developments are still years away from realization, the need and creativity exists to make it happen.

    One can not however forget to mention the increasing role of services and software that are enabling simpler ways to create and share content. One can argue that the recent success of on demand services like Adobe’s cloud subscription offering and apple’s iCloud are driving the need for Hardware capable of delivering values like longer battery life and portability as content creation and consumption options evolve online.

    • Hi Brian,

      Agreed about battery life – Displays with less power consumption and things like nVidia’s variable SMPs will help in terms of consuming less power, but the promise of batteries that can vastly outstrip the demands of a cutting-edge consumer device to the point of retaining charge for days whilst in constant use is still some way off. Graphene batteries were a hot-button issue some years ago, from what I can remember, but there are numerous other technologies also in the conceptual/research stages. The first useful transistor was invented at Bell Labs in 1947. Western Electric began mass-producing it in 1951, and the first transistor-based computer was made in late 1953. These things take time. It will be exciting to see how battery tech pans out over the course of the next 5 – 10 years.

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