June 11, 2009

Paper: a display technology for the future?

What with all the talk about new portable devices such as netbooks and the Amazon Kindle, an older but still promising portable display technology called “paper” has been largely ignored. But that’s a shame, because paper has many advantages that electronic devices still don’t come close to equaling.

At first glance, paper might seem like an awfully crude technology; it’s made from flattened-out wood pulp, after all. But this allows it to take on shapes and sizes only dreamed of by conventional displays. Take newspapers, for example. Their display size and resolution are enormous by today’s standards; equivalent LCDs would cost thousands of dollars. Also, newspapers are light in weight, and can be folded up for portability.

For less temporary content, paper is used in devices known as “books” (if you’re wondering where the term “ebook” came from, now you know). Books consist of large numbers of small sheets of paper bound together at their left edge. A stiff cover, either of thicker paper or cardboard, is usually applied to the front and back of a book for protection. Because they are light and use no power, books can go places where laptops and even netbooks don’t dare: in the bathtub, on long backpacking trips, and to the tops of mountains. As with newspapers, their display size doubles when you unfold them, and they can take a beating. Throw them around or bend them, or even get them damp, and they’ll still be readable, albeit a bit less like new.

Another advantage to paper devices is that they are not encumbered by DRM protection schemes. You’re free to give away or sell books you’ve acquired at any time, though typically the amount you’ll receive for a used book is much less than you paid for it originally. Still, the freedom to use the book as you wish is a huge advantage.

So if paper reading devices are so great, what are the disadvantages? The one I notice the most is the lack of fast searching features. You have to flip through the pages manually and use visual matching to find words. Some non-fiction books have indexes, but these are often incomplete. The problem is most apparent with fiction: if you’re reading a Jane Austen novel and come across a character you don’t remember, it can take a long time to find out where she was first mentioned. On the other hand, flipping through the pages of a paper book often goes a lot faster than on an electronic display.

Another problem with paper is weight and bulk. An individual paper device can be fairly light and slim. But if you acquire a large library of books, lugging them around can be a pain, literally. I became acutely aware of this problem recently as I was packing for a move: my collection of books filled 20 heavy boxes.

So given its significant advantages, paper display technology is likely to stick around for quite a while, though future electronic display devices, as foreshadowed by the still-crude Kindle, are likely to give it a run for its money.