Thursday was a very good day for E Ink Corp., a Cambridge maker of display screens.
Amazon.com unveiled a new lineup of its Kindle tablet computers and e-readers, including the Kindle Paperwhite, a $119 device built around an illuminated version of E Ink’s power-sipping black-and-white screen.
On the same day, the Canadian e-book maker Kobo Inc. rolled out three new readers with E Ink screens. Both followed an August release of an upgraded e-book, also with an E Ink screen, from the Japanese electronics giant Sony Corp.
It’s a welcome reversal of fortunes for the company, which suffered as the boom in tablet computers like Apple Inc.’s iPad, with its high-resolution color display, dented demand for the inexpensive e-book readers built around E Ink’s screen technology.
“The potential size of the business has definitely been reset to a lower level because of tablets,” said Paul Semenza, an analyst with the market research firm DisplaySearch in Santa Clara, Calif.
Worldwide sales of e-paper screens from E Ink and its rivals fell from 5 million in the second quarter of 2011 to 1.2 million in the same period this year, according to DisplaySearch. And E Ink’s Taiwanese parent company, E Ink Holdings Inc., reported a $26 million loss in the first quarter of 2012, compared with a $43 million profit in the previous quarter.
However, the market for those screens is now dominated by E Ink, Semenza said. Last month, the company agreed to buy SiPix Technology Inc., its main competitor, leaving E Ink as “the last man standing” in a diminished but still profitable e-paper market.
And the development of new E Ink screen-centered devices demonstrates how the rising tablet tide has helped to sell e-readers like the Kindle, said Sri Peruvemba, E Ink’s chief marketing officer.
“If you go back and look at when the first iPad was launched, every headline screamed that this would be the end of e-readers,” he said. “But our business actually grew in the first year after the iPad was launched.”
Peruvemba believes Apple’s hugely popular tablet showed consumers the value of a thin, lightweight computer as a reading device. As for the decline in demand for e-paper screens, Peruvemba blamed a glut of tablet computers from rivals like Samsung Corp., seeking to chip away at Apple’s dominance of that market. “That did definitely impact our revenue,” he said.
Meanwhile, E Ink plans to diversify beyond e-readers. One idea: a dual-screen smartphone that would combine an LCD touchscreen with an e-paper screen for reading e-books. The phone might have a clamshell design, Peruvemba said, or it could be a one-piece device, with the LCD screen on one side and E Ink’s screen on the other.
E Ink also has a foothold in LCD production. Peruvemba said it holds 3,000 patents on LCD technology, and they have been licensed to most of the world’s leading screen makers. E Ink also manufactures some LCD screens in South Korea. While Peruvemba refused to name specific customers, Semenza said the company makes screens for the Kindle Fire.
E Ink‘s core mission remains the development of displays, whatever the underlying technology, Preuvemba said. “LCD’s really not our competitor. I think our nearest competitor is printed paper.”