Reflective OutLook: Shades of Gray or Colorful?
by Jenny Donelan
The summer of 2012 was an eventful one for the reflective, low-power industry. Two major players made announcements that may be difficult to interpret right now, but certainly indicate changes ahead. In July, Qualcomm, maker of the mirasol low-power MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) reflective technology, announced that it would begin licensing that technology. And in August, E Ink Holdings, which makes the E Ink on which the majority of e-Readers are built, announced that it planned to acquire SiPix Technology, Inc., a developer of microcup technology-based electrophoretic displays.
For some time, mirasol has been considered a possible contender to E Ink's ubiquitous electrophoretic technology. One of the main reasons that Qualcomm's announcement came as a surprise was that the chipset maker has been vigorously researching, developing, and promoting mirasol for several years and is currently building a mirasol-display factory in Taiwan. A quick survey of technology bloggers shows the general consensus is that Qualcomm may be going in a different direction with mirasol, which began appearing in e-Readers in 2011. mirasol can show color and video, but somewhat similar to color EPDs to date, the color is somewhat similar, not bright and crisp.
So what's going on with mirasol? According to The Verge's Adi Robinson, who notes that Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs spoke of licensing next-generation mirasol display technology and directly commercializing certain mirasol products: "This doesn't necessarily mean the mirasol line will be discontinued, but it's clearly being scaled back, and it's possible that this is effectively the end for Qualcomm's own production." 1 At press time, Qualcomm representatives said they were not commenting on the announcement or plans for the factory in Taiwan.
E Ink and SiPix
Meanwhile, could color have anything do to do with E Ink's recent announcement of its intention to acquire SiPix, whose microcup technology does show promise in that area? E Ink will certainly utilize SiPix's color capabilities, says Sriram K. Peruvemba, Chief Marketing Officer for E Ink Holdings. Peruvemba characterizes that color as having "some of the same advantages as E Ink in that it is low power, sunlight readable, thin, light ... ."
Beyond a doubt, one area of interest for E Ink is SiPix's manufacturing capabilities. "SiPix's factories, equipment, and infrastructure are relatively newer, which gives us greater flexibility and additional capacity as we seek new markets," says Peruvemba. Among the markets that the potential acquisition will make more accessible, he says, are digital signage and smart cards.
When it comes to E Ink, it isn't necessarily all about color, notes University of Cincinnati's Jason Heikenfeld, who has served as a guest editor for Information Display (and is also a founder of e-Paper up-and-comer Gamma Dynamics, mentioned later on). "We should maintain excitement about the continued expansion of monochrome e-Paper products," he says. "A quiet revolution continues to take place there. Color-video e-Paper will also have its day, but today we should be impressed with E Ink's continued product growth and diversification."
Any way you look at it, with E Ink, whose share of the e-Reader market is more than 90%, poised to acquire AUO subsidiary SiPix, further consolidation in the e-Paper market seems inevitable. At press time, E Ink had reached an agreement to acquire 82.7% of SiPix's shares and was seeking to acquire up to a 100% stake, valued at approximately NT$1.5 billion. As DisplaySearch analyst Paul Semenza wrote in a recent blog, titled And Then There Was One – E Ink to Acquire SiPix, "Combined with Bridgestone's exit [earlier this year] from the electrophoretic display (EPD) business, this means that E Ink, the first company to mass produce EPDs, will be the sole manufacturer of the technology." 2
Yet, the e-Paper story isn't all black and white. In the future, look for news from Liquavista (which Samsung acquired in January 2011) and Gamma Dynamics (a spin-off from the University of Cincinnati). Both companies have video-capable displays (Liquivista's is based on electrowetting and Gamma Dynamics's on electrofluidics) that are reported to show more vibrant color than previously available.