eInk: A Possible Future for Paper

Guest blogger Nick Bilton is with the New York Times R&D Lab during the day and NYC Resistor at night.

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Working in the R&D Labs at The New York Times, I’m constantly asked, “How long will paper be around?” or more to the point, “When will paper really die?” It’s a valid concern, and a question no one can answer with a timetable. But there will be a point–and I believe in our lifetime–when we’ll see the demise of the traditional print newspaper. After all, paper is just a device. It provides a way to communicate information, just as a TV, radio, cell phone, and billboard do. This isn’t to say that newspapers will go away. The way they are delivered will just change, and in turn, the narrative as we know it will have to adapt–more on this in a later post. But paper can easily be replaced–and the factor that will drive this is simple economics.

Let’s put books and magazines aside for a moment, and focus on newsprint. The cost of printing a national newspaper like the Wall Street Journal is close to $150k a day. That’s just for the newsprint. When you factor in printing plant rental or ownership fees, machine maintenance, shipping, and wages for plant employees, drivers, and packers, the final cost is hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Now if you have an average of 1,000,000 subscribers to the newspaper on a daily basis (this is a rounded-down average of a few top papers) and you stopped printing the paper, but instead gave your readers an eReader at $200 apiece, it would take fewer than six months for you to recoup your costs. If you factor back in books and magazines, people who read more than one newspaper a day, and throw in the odd journal or two, you’ve got a multi-billion dollar industry that could collectively save billions of dollars a year by moving away from ink on paper.

But there are problems associated with this model. There’s the environmental effect–devices may not be as benign as they seem, after the impact of manufacturing, materials, and shipping is considered. There’s a human cost–people who print and deliver the paper would lose their jobs. There are the immense difficulties of advertising on small, different-sized devices–do advertisers create one ad at one size, or many different ones, do they animate, etc. And then there’s the issue that you have to treat the device with care, something you don’t need to do with paper.

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But for every argument against digital paper, eInk or whatever you want to call it, there is a rebuttal, or at least there will be over time. The simple fact that an eInk device today can carry a thousand books and that it only needs recharging once a month speaks paramount. The ability to download content over the air instantly–something that the “digital native” generation fully expects–is compelling. And as far as cost goes, this will be a non-issue in the coming years. Look at the cost of a 15 Megabyte hard drive 20-plus years ago, it was $2495! Today, you couldn’t buy or find that size hard drive anywhere, and if you could it would cost mere pennies to create. I’m willing to bet that the cost of an eInk device will be negligible in 20 years.

A common response to the prospect of an eReader is, “But I love the feel of paper, I love a good book in my hands.” I can empathize with that sentiment, but I don’t think the digital generation can. If it’s not a touch screen, or hyperlinked, or instantly available at the press of a button, then it’s not worth their time. And as soon as a reasonable iPod-like replacement comes along, paper won’t be worth the publishing industry’s time either.

Update: The title was updated.

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  • Paul Renault

    I have an iRex iLiad. (The Kindle’s screen is too small, if you ask me, and the iLiad has a writeable screen.) It’s better than paper.

    It’s lighter than a book, you don’t have to twist your hand(s) this way and that to read the pages. You don’t have to constantly flatten the page. And you can literally carry hundreds of books around with you. And there are lots and lots of free electronic documents out there on the ‘Net.

    For electrical diagrams, blueprints, etc, paper is better. But that’ll change too.

    Too many publishers of ebooks/enewspapers is that they charge the same price for digital version of a book as for the paper version. And their distributions methods don’t make sense (I don’t want to read the newspaper online; I want to d/l it and read it later.) They don’t get my business.

    A lot of smarter vendors, however, do offer digital versions of book much cheaper than their hard copies, sometimes even free. These get my business.

    I did own a huge Apple II FIVE megabyte hard disk drive, a long time ago. I found the drive for $50 at a sidewalk sale, ordered the interface card for something like $150. I never managed to full up more than half of it. Uber-coolness.

  • http://www.mymeemz.com Alex Tolley

    Several points:

    1.Cory Doctorow has a good counterpoint:
    http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2008/03/cory-doctorow-put-not-your-faith-in.html

    2. You seem to assume that news producing organizations will stay the same, just the media delivery will change. Internet reading patterns suggest otherwise. I expect substantial unbundling and rebundling in the industry. Do we really need the fluff between the advertising that fills most of a newspaper?

    3. Copies will still be desired – even if it is just a copy to a personal file to the net or a paper printer. Leaving delivery to a organization of increasingly ephemeral material is potentially a problem c.f. “1984” and to some extent Wikipedia entries today.

    So yes, paper thin, high definition, high contrast, electronic displays will become a great alternative display for print and video media, but the paper to electronic story is a sideshow. What is really at issue is who produces content and how that content will find eyeballs. I don’t really see much of a future for traditional news organizational structures.

  • http://www.capgemini.com/technology-blog/ Rick Mans

    Paper is in my opinion eternal:

    [...]

    Though paper appears to be a relatively “dumb” medium, it too performs tasks that require special abilities. And many of paper’s tricks, the useful purposes it serves, are similarly products of its long relationship with people. There are cognitive, cultural and social dimensions to the human-paper dynamic that come into play every time any kind of paper, from a tiny Post-it note to a groaning Sunday newspaper, is used to convey, retrieve or store information. Paper does these jobs in a way that pleases us, which is why, for centuries, we have liked having it around. It’s also why we will never give it up as a medium, not completely. For some of the roles paper currently fulfills in our media lives, there is no better alternative currently available. And the most promising candidates are technologies that are striving to be more, not less, like paper. Indeed, the pertinent question may be not whether the old medium will survive, but whether the new ones will ever escape paper’s enormous shadow.

    [...]

    You can read the complete paper here:
    http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/presspol/research_publications/papers/discussion_papers/D39.pdf

  • http://www.cabi.org David

    My tuppenceworth:

    1) Paper – good for archiving – very good for archiving. eStuff – I would contend that the archiving issue is still very much to be solved.

    2) The digital generation – Growing up in world where you don’t have to pay for information… Growing up in world where (assuming they do pay) the idea of buying a whole Albums worth of music is considered madness – they buy the tracks they like for $0.99 (or £0.79 in the UK). Books don’t work like that.

    3) The digital generation like two kinds of devices – the kind you can stick to your face (phone/mp3 player – with built in (video)camera) and the kind that you cannot (laptops/notebooks). The eBook devices all fall into the second category, and that’s a problem because I can’t see the general population who may have to cart around the second type of device, wanting add to the burden in great numbers. The ones that don’t have to carry around the laptop/notebook will likely want their face device to do the job for them (they already use the mobile as a watch remember) and so the issue of the form of the book now looms large. There’s a reason that books are the size they are – it’s the minimum size for the data that people want to read. I just don’t think you can solve that for long form content on a smaller reader. I think the face device is ok for short stuff, but a book?

    So, I think the device will be the laptop/notebook especially if they crack the truly flexible ePaper technology, in which case the idea of having a flexible rugged reading device (perhaps a passive one linked to the mobile or the laptop for the processing/communication/storage) would be very interesting.