E-paper: A Tragedy in Three Acts

Act I

Sometime around the turn of the century, I attended a meeting at the Society for Authors. A (to my mind nerdy) speaker addressed us on the subject of e-readers. “You need to know about this stuff!” he yelled, waving his Rocket reader in the air as if it were something between a trophy and a weapon.

When he passed the Rocket round the audience, we all duly inspected it – and decided that no, we didn’t need to know about it, than you very much. Why? Because we couldn’t imagine ourselves reading books on such a thing? Why? Because the technology was rubbish.

I left the meeting clear that screen technology was not yet a match for print.


The prize for developing a replacement for print was so great that it was unlikely that, sooner or later, we wouldn’t develop the technology required. When I heard claims that the screen technology used by second generation of readers was as readable as paper, I was (based on my experience of Rocket Man) sceptical. But I was easily won round when I had a chance to see for myself.

I don’t think e-paper is quite as readable as print (well, not when the text is decently printed on decent paper). The contrast between the text and the dull grey background of most e-paper screens is sub-optimal. For most purposes, however, the difference is insiginificant: e-paper is highly readable.

I have bought three e-readers: an Irex, a Kindle, and a Kobo. I find them all admirable. The large screen Irex was designed for professionals needing to read and carry documents. I find it invaluable for my work in the University of Cambridge, mentoring research scientists writing for publication. I now carry hundreds of papers with me between various departments in the School of Technology.

I have used the Irex for reading books too, though for that purpose I much prefer the Kobo, the acquisition of which has increased the amount and broadened the range of reading I do.

For most of my life I would have doubted that screen technology could ever achieve readability comparable to paper. That it has done so strikes me as close to miraculous.


Yet the development of the e-paper devices has been closely followed by the development of the iPad and comparable tablets. These are often described as, amongst other things, “e-readers”. And so, in a sense, they are. For reading magazines, the iPad strikes me as admirable. Ditto newspapers. Especially as the digital editions increasingly become enhanced, not only by colour photography but also video.

But for so-called immersive reading – of novels, for example, the screen technology is nowhere near good enough. They are no match for either print or e-paper. One of my children read the whole of The Lord of the Rings on our Kindle. He wouldn’t have done so on an iPad.

Yet tablets are attractive things, good for a number of purposes. And because they are known and thought of as, in part, e-readers and because many of their owners will not wish to carry both an iPad and a Kindle (or equivalent), the danger is that Octavian tablets will drive out Cleopatran e-paper readers. (Dual-screen devices, with one of each kind of screen, have yet to gain any traction.)

If humanity, having developed so wonderful a thing as e-paper, turns it back on it, the late Mr Jobs be found to have done us all a dis-service.


2 Responses to “E-paper: A Tragedy in Three Acts”

  1. Hi Anthony. If we are talking about mono books, then you may be right. (Mind you, not only do I read magazines on my iPad but also a lot of plain e-books, quite happily.) But the way that e-books are developing, e-ink has a few deficiencies.

    • Thanks, Gerald. Could I ask you to say a little more about the way e-books are developing? Do I take it you’re referring to enahancements such as embedded audio and video?

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