Computing

Plastic Logic's Touch-Screen E-Reader

The company hopes to carve out a niche with its touch-based interface.

It’s still early days for e-readers, and consumers can only choose between a few chunky-looking models. But by next year, Plastic Logic, based in Cambridge, U.K., will start selling a sleek e-reader that’s the size of a standard sheet of paper and as thin as about six credit cards, and weighs less than a pound. The design of the device could help win over some customers, but Steven Glass, head of user experience at Plastic Logic, believes that the user interface developed for the device will play just as crucial a role.

Paper thin: Plastic Logic’s e-reader is as thick as six credit cards.

On Wednesday, Plastic Logic will demo its new interface for the first time, at the All Things Digital D7 conference, in San Diego. The interface includes a touch screen to let users add notes to documents and save them even when the documents are transferred to another device or computer.

As with both the Kindle and the Sony Reader, Plastic Logic’s display is built using E-ink: black and white microcapsules are suspended in a liquid and controlled using an electric charge. When a charge is applied, the microcapsules assume their position and form black text on a white background. However, in Plastic Logic’s reader, the E-ink is deposited on a lightweight plastic backplane instead of on a glass backplane. Plastic Logic says that the plastic backplane allows for a larger reading area without adding more weight or bulk, and this makes the device more robust.

Plastic Logic hopes to further distinguish its reader from Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader by targeting those who read business documents created using Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat, as well as image files and standard e-reader files. The goal is to eliminate “the huge stack of papers that people take with them when they travel,” says Glass. Many people need to sort through thousands of documents quickly, he adds, and want to mark them up by circling or underlining items or by adding notes.

In a demonstration at Plastic Logic’s Mountain View, CA, facility last week, Glass showed off the upcoming reader. After the device starts up, the left side of the screen shows documents, including newspapers and books, organized in several different ways. For example, it shows the most recently transferred documents; a series of drop-down folders, similar to those of the file manager on personal computers; and a calendar with documents assigned to specific days. The right side of the screen shows icons for different documents, with their titles below. The interface also supports a search function, and when that is selected, a keyboard pops up on the screen for entering text.

When reading a document, a person “turns” the page by flicking a finger across the screen, and she can skip to a page number using a hidden toolbar that pops out of the right side of the screen when that side is touched. Depending on the size of the document, the page numbers are presented either one at a time or in groups of 10, such as 50 through 59. Tapping the screen further breaks it down to individual pages. Because marking up documents is an important feature of the interface, users can see, on these page numbers, which pages have been altered or bookmarked and can skip directly to them.

While the Plastic Logic home page interface allows for more flexibility than that of the Kindle, which offers limited ways to find documents, it appears less elegant and is slightly more cluttered.

Mary Tripsas, a professor of business administration at Harvard University, who studies the e-reader industry, says that companies are still trying to figure out the best interfaces for e-readers. “I don’t think anyone’s gotten it right yet,” she says, although she adds that it is a good idea to make it easy to keep track of annotations to documents.

At this stage, the interface may not be enough to distinguish one e-reader product from another, says Susan Kevorkian, an analyst at research firm IDC. “The primary factors for the e-book reader market have been content availability and device price,” she says. Plastic Logic has so far announced publishing partnerships with several Detroit newspapers, the Financial Times, USA Today, and content aggregators such as Ingram Digital, LibreDigital, and Zinio. The price has not been finalized, but Glass says that it will be close to that of other e-readers on the market.

Ultimately, however, Kevorkian believes that the user interface will emerge as an important differentiator for e-readers. “Being able to comfortably annotate documents and have those changes preserved after transferring the document to another device, like a PC, boosts the utility of the reader considerably in terms of conforming to usage preferences and the larger ecosystem of a user’s devices,” she says.

Plastic Logic’s device will be able to store four gigabytes of data and will have a Wi-Fi connection, although Glass wouldn’t confirm that it would support Bluetooth or cellular wireless connectivity. It will connect to a computer via a USB wire to transfer documents and recharge. And since the device only uses electricity when it refreshes a page, it can go for days without a charge. As with the Kindle, its black and white display is able to refresh in less than a second, but if the graphics on the page are more complicated or it needs to switch from portrait to landscape, it takes a little longer.

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