Thursday, February 11, 2010

1979: Apple's Missed eInk Opportunity

Kindicted readers love their eInk displays; after all, the display places the Kindle and iPad squarely in different markets.  Could there be some sort of long lost connection between the Kindle and iPad that make them some sort of techno distant cousins?  Possibly.  Let's work our way backwards from 2010, all the way back to where the first ePaper was torn from its proverbial ePad.

1997-present: eInk
Some readers may know that the eInk display in the Kindle was developed at E Ink Corporation, an offshoot of MIT.  The original development team behind eInk represented some of the brightest people around.  With funding ($16M from IBM), patents and inventions followed quickly, with some the original eInk technology used as advertising.  In 1997, a groundbreaking paper called The Last Book was published in the IBM Journal of Systems and Development.

At one point, the paper describes a blank book with many eInk-based sheets.  On the spine of the book, a display and interface would allow the user to 'fill' the book with any book in their electronic library.  Even connectivity to the Internet was conceived for the eInk-based book.  So pulp-based books have been dying since 1997, right?  Not really, since one has to look a bit farther back to find the real culprit, and the company that was researching electronic paper seemed to have a lock on physical paper: Xerox.

1974-2005: Gyricon Kubla Khan
The basic idea behind the eInk display stemmed from research in the early 1970s by Nicholas K. Sheridon; a researcher with Xerox.  The Gyricon (greek for rotating image) worked by rotating tiny half-white, half-black (or is it half-black, half white?) beads immersed in oil using an electric field.  Strangely, the display technology was developed as a replacement for a CRT that didn't seem bright enough.  This the CRT in question was connected to a famous Xerox computer: the Xerox Alto.

As you may have read, the Xerox Alto impressed a young hippie visiting Xerox' Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) in 1979.  Obviously, that hippie was Steve Jobs, and he and Woz has started Apple a couple of years earlier.  The Lisa and Macintosh computers were modelled after the Alto, which led to NeXT, OSX, iPods, iPhones, and finally iPads.

Mr. Sheridon was dissuaded by a Xerox suit, who informed him that Xerox does not make displays, so that was the end of the gyricon display technology.  In 1989, Mr. Sheridon realized that his gyricon technology could be used to develop ePaper.  The ePaper arm of Xerox lasted until 2005, when it was disbanded.

If the executive at Xerox funded the ePaper display in the mid-1970s, a young Steve Jobs, as part of his fact-finding mission, could have also been inspired by a gyricon display as part of the Xerox Alto, which could have led to ePaper displays in the 1980s, and so on.  Steve Jobs would have killed books long ago with his MacBook, NeXTBook, and iBook devices!

It seems that in the technology field, there are many missed opportunities, and many happy accidents.  Regardless, the kindicted users of today are using a "magical and revolutionary" display technology that took 35 years to come to fruition.