Ask Liu Chun-ting (劉軍廷) about future growth engines for his company, LCD maker AU Optronics Corp (友達光電), and he whips out his Kindle e-book in lieu of an answer.
Strong reception for the Kindle, the brainchild of Web retailer Amazon, is attracting a growing number of developers looking to tap interest in devices that let consumers read newspapers, magazines and books in a digital form that updates wirelessly and saves paper.
Sony Corp has joined the paperless wave with its own e-readers, partnering with Google to offer public domain books that are no longer protected by copyright.
Other believers in the dawn of a paperless age include Taiwan’s Netronix Inc (振曜科技), which is making similar models with touchscreens, and Dutch Polymer Vision, set to soon introduce a pocket e-reader with rollable displays.
“We see it as a new industry,” said Liu, a senior vice president at AU Optronics, the world’s No.3 LCD maker whose panels are part of Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Apple PCs, as well as Sony LCD TVs.
“It replaces paper, printing, publishing, text books, and so on,” said Liu, who is in charge of AU Optronics’ consumer display business.
The growing number of models could help to bring down prices and boost sales, making these portable readers the next breed of must-have gadgets.
Weighing less than a typical paperback, e-books use a new generation of light, flexible and interactive display, or e-paper. Once the power is off, its images remain unchanged on the screen as it needs no added light source to read.
Because they require no backlighting like traditional LCDs, e-books consume far less power and are also much lighter. A typical Kindle can be read for days without recharging.
The bright future of e-books is particularly attractive to major LCD makers in Asia, including AU Optronics and hometown rival Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corp (奇美電子), at a time when they are struggling with sluggish sales of PCs and flat-screen TVs.
AU Optronics, which booked a record loss in the October-December quarter, is branching out to the new display sector by buying a 21 percent stake in e-paper specialist SiPix Imaging Inc.
Amazon.com Inc’s Kindles have proved a hit since their launch in 2007. Citigroup estimated the US online retailer sold a half-million Kindles last year, about one-third more than the number of iPods sold by Apple in its first year.
Some critics argue that e-books could become the victim of their own success if cellphone makers take notice and start to incorporate the newer LCD technology into their own models and include similar reading applications.
Other kinds of devices could also try to incorporate e-book-like applications.
“There will be more low-cost digital reading platforms coming out. Netbook PCs, for example, are much cheaper,” said Jeremy Huang, who tracks the e-book market for the Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute (MIC, 產業情報研究所), a private industry researcher in Taiwan.
Netbooks, low-cost mini-notebook computers, sell for as little as US$299, while a Kindle retails for US$359 and the latest model of the Sony Reader is priced at about US$349.
Market research firm iSuppli Corp forecasts global e-book display revenue will rise to US$291 million by 2012, representing an annual growth rate of 143 percent from 2007. That is still much smaller than about US$72 billion for large LCDs last year.