The Apple iPad Isn't Going to Revolutionize the Display Industry

The iPad's old-tech LCD screen demonstrates, once again, that the perfect display is at least 10 years away

Illustration: Harry Campbell

The iPad, Apple’s much-anticipated tablet computer due out this month, isn’t going to revolutionize the display industry. It doesn’t sport a bright organic LED display. It isn’t even wearing the latest Pixel Qi technology, which combines LCD technology with a black-and-white reflective version for easy viewing in bright sunlight.

The iPad uses a simple full-color LCD, backlit with LEDs, the kind of display you see today on many flat-screen televisions and computer monitors. Apple’s decision to go with the LCD isn’t particularly surprising. The iPad will be used to display photos and videos, and to do that it needs a full-color, full-motion display. So E Ink and its monochrome brethren are out. OLED technology is just too expensive right now, and Pixel Qi is a compromise—it gives up a bit in color saturation to pick up that visibility in sunlight.

But the choice of LCD technology also means that, in spite of the vast library of e-books that will be available for the iPad, this device is no e-book reader. While I’m not an e-book convert myself, the folks I know who carry Kindles everywhere read them outdoors as much as in, often in sunlight, and that just won’t be possible with the iPad’s LCD screen.

The iPad will, however, affect the world of displays, says Jason Heikenfeld, an associate professor in the Novel Devices Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati and author of our feature ”Lite, Brite Displays,” in this issue. Because the iPad will allow consumers to purchase magazines and other publications with the ease of buying an iTunes track, it will increase the movement to digital media. This will up the demand for a do-it-all screen that can display full-color motion video as well as easy-to-read text, and it may speed up the advance of the state of the art.

But where, exactly, is the display of the future right now? You know, the cheap, portable, low-power, easy-to-read-under-any-and-all-conditions screen we’ve been saying is 10 years away for, oh, the last 20 years or so?

In his article, Heikenfeld describes a half-dozen different technologies that are now coming out of different labs to vie for control of the e-paper display market—estimated to be about US $10 billion by 2018. And yes, these technologies are about 10 years away from commercialization.

So I guess I won’t be tossing out the pile of books on my nightstand to download my bedtime reading from iTunes just yet. Don’t get me wrong—the iPad is a sweet computer. And strangely enough, in all its succinct simplicity, it may be just the thing for very late Internet adapters like my 70-plus-year-old aunt, who’s never used a computer, only has a landline, and has no patience for service people, boxes with blinking lights, tangled wires, and enigmatic technology. But it’s certainly not a printed-book killer, or even a Kindle killer for that matter.

I love the idea of unlimited access, and LCDs like the iPad’s are great for digging for information and viewing multimedia content. But for reading for relaxation (which, for me, often means outdoors in a comfortable horizontal position) they just won’t do. Maybe someday, the new displays now in the works—the ones that are once again just 10 years away—will.

A version of this article appeared in IEEE Spectrum Online’s Tech Talk blog on 27 January.

This article originally appeared in print as "The Perfect Portable Display—Will It Ever Be Less Than 10 Years Away?"

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