Will E-paper Replace Print Paper?


E-paper and the possibility of e-paper replacing print paper have been discussed for several decades. Now, with more and more reports on soaring sales figures of both ebook and e-readers, and the many estimates and projections of future sales figures, the question of when the replacement might happen has been of more and more concern. However, to better understand the possibility of the substitution and how soon that might happen, we have to think about several essential issues. For instance, what on earth is e-paper? Why e-paper instead of print paper? What does e-paper has to do with ebooks and e-readers? To answer these questions, we have to think further and ask: Why ebooks rather than print books? And why books rather than documents or manuscripts?

Why ebook?

While it is self-evident that readers prefer books rather than hand-written manuscripts for readability and aesthetic reasons, why they are not so happy reading digitally written books in Word format or Web format? Obviously, books offer more than just information and stories. Apart from readability and artistic beauty, books provide readers with the senses of authority and entity, and the assurance of authenticity. Besides, with the copyright information clearly printed on the book, the ownership of copyright and the rights to make and distribute copies are declared and published in a recognized way once the book is published. Plagiarism can be easily checked against the original work; and duplications of the books are not easy or cheap and are easily discoverable and punishable. This gives both the publisher and the author a sense of security of their ownership. Whereas works in Word format, Web format, or any other loose format don’t give the sense of complete entity. And because they are easily revisable and duplicable, they don’t give readers the sense of authenticity and authority, nor do they give the publisher and the author the sense of security of ownership, due to the difficulty of digital rights management.

With books having so many merits, how did ebooks originate, and who wanted ebooks? Although the inventor and the time for the invention of the first ebook are not widely agreed upon, the motivations for making ebooks can be guessed from early attempts. It is said that in 1930, inspired by talkie movies, Bob Brown wrote an ebook for his reading machine and named it Readies. His aim was to save space, paper and ink and to enhance reading by providing flexibility and portability. The following are snippets of his description of his reading machine:

“To continue reading at today’s speed I must have a machine. … A machine as handy as a portable phonograph, typewriter or radio, compact, minute operated by electricity, the printing done microscopically by the new photographic process on a transparent tough tissue roll which carries the contents of a book and is no bigger than a typewriter ribbon, a roll like a miniature serpentine that can be put in a pill box.”

… …

“The material advantages of my reading machine are obvious, paper saving by condensation and elimination of waste margin space which alone takes up a fifth or sixth of the bulk of the present-day book. Ink saving in proportion, a much smaller surface needs to be covered. … Binding will be unnecessary, paper pill boxes are produced at the fraction of the cost of cloth cases. Manual labor will be minimized.”

(Jeremy Norman, n. d.)

Another early attempt in making ebook was done in 1971 by Michael Hart with the first steps of Project Gutenberg. The purpose of the project was to allow anyone to have a digital library at no cost (M. Lebert, 2009).

Although these early efforts in making ebooks did not gain enough attention to boost ebook-making revolution, they grabbed the essential need for ebooks: better functionalities, more conveniences, and lower cost.

Readers care about ebooks for many reasons. The first concern is price. There are not many print books readily available for free reading or free ownership, whereas free, good ebooks are now abundant on the Internet for download. For ebooks that are not free, their prices are generally much cheaper than their print versions. Another consideration in favoring ebooks is the conveniences in purchasing, carrying, storing, and sharing them. Unlike print books, ebooks can be freely downloaded or purchased from anywhere in the world, provided that the reader has access to the Internet. People who don’t have enough room in their houses to store a hundred books can now store thousands and even millions of ebooks on a device which takes the space of only one book in their house. And they can carry these ebooks anywhere they go. They can also store their ebooks in an online library that can be accessed wherever they are. They can share ebooks with their friends and relatives easily and freely. Of course, as much as with print books, the biggest concern about ebook is readability. The ebooks also have to be pleasant to the mind as well as to the eyes, so that readers enjoy reading them. What about that sense of entity and authority? Though not entirely as much as print books, ebooks do give readers some sense of entity and authority. Besides, with ebooks, fast and easy adaptation of the content is possible, and some models have the option to make notes that can be transformed into printed text. Could ebooks have more functionalities than print books, such as animation, audio, and video functions? Yes, and reading ebooks can be a more informative and entertaining experience than reading print books. Yet, it is right here that ebooks get stuck. To provide readers with the sense of entity, authority, aesthetics and more functionalities, coupled with the need to protect copyright, codes have to be used to make ebooks, which in turn makes reading experience complicated.

Challenges and opportunities

So here are the challenges and opportunities for different parties involved. From the reader’s point of view, the opportunities are that there are more and more ebooks cheaply available, and more and more ebooks are having more and more features; whereas the challenges are that most ebooks have to be read with special devices or software. These devices add to cost, inconveniences and complexity to the reading experience. From the publisher’s perspective, the biggest challenge is protection of copyrights to ensure profits; and another big challenge is technical complexity of creating ebooks and converting print books to ebooks. While the opportunities are growing need for ebooks, and zero cost for printing or warehouse or shipping for ebooks. From the author’s standpoint, there comes the opportunity to self publish or self market their ebooks, much more easily than to self publish print books and with much lower risks. Yet the challenges are also the complexity of technology and the difficulty in copyright control.

Here comes the opportunity for technology companies and individuals, and e-reading devices and e-paper set in. It is here that the answer to the questions of whether e-paper will replace print paper, and when, lies. If e-paper can meet the major, if not all, challenges of ebook making and reading, then it can grab the opportunities and migrate reading and writing from print paper to e-paper. And when reading and writing on e-paper become significantly easy and cheap, if not as easy and cheap as on print paper, with so much more fun and functionalities and conveniences that the majority of people begin favoring e-paper, print paper will gradually retire, in some fields, if not all. And e-papers will be used instead of print paper in more and more fields.

Where e-paper is now?

To figure out where e-paper is now, it is helpful to dig into the concept of e-paper. What on earth is e-paper? Margaret Rouse, Editorial Director of WhatIs.com, gave a definition in May 2007:

E-paper (sometimes called radio paper or just electronic paper) is a portable, reusable storage and display medium that looks like paper but can be repeatedly written on (refreshed) – by electronic means – thousands or millions of times. E-paper will be used for applications such as e-books, electronic newspapers, portable signs, and foldable, rollable displays. Information to be displayed is downloaded through a connection to a computer or a cell phone, or created with mechanical tools such as an electronic “pencil”.

This definition gives the basic idea of e-paper: a medium for reading and writing. The latest definition given by Wikipedia is as follows:

Electronic paper, e-paper and electronic ink are display technologies which are designed to mimic the appearance of ordinary ink on paper. Unlike conventional backlit flat panel displays which emit light, electronic paper displays reflect light like ordinary paper, theoretically making it more comfortable to read, and giving the surface a wider viewing angle compared to conventional displays. … An ideal e-paper display can be read in direct sunlight without the image appearing to fade.

Many electronic paper technologies can hold static text and images indefinitely without using electricity. Flexible electronic paper uses plastic substrates and plastic electronics for the display backplane. …

Applications of electronic visual displays include electronic pricing labels in retail shops, and digital signage, time tables at bus stations, electronic billboards, mobile phone displays, and e-readers able to display digital versions of books and e-paper magazines.

As can be seen, the concept of e-paper has been evolving with the advancement of technology. E-paper now allows readers to read as they read on print paper, with reflected light rather than emitted light, as long as there is external lighting source. This is an important trait of e-paper, causing much less pressure on the eyes than reading on PC monitors. In addition, text and images will remain on the electronic paper even without power supply. Furthermore, e-papers are now light and flexible, meaning readers can fold them and roll them. And lastly, e-papers are now widely used in e-readers, mobile phone displays, and many other fields.

In 2011, Jason Heikenfeld, the internationally recognized researcher in the field of electrofluidics, together with three other researchers, provided a list of top 10 e-paper technologies in the next 20 years. According to them, by mid 2011, color e-paper would be used for color e-readers and students would be able to draw with electronic ink and erase the whole screen by pressing a button; by 2014, e-device that provides video and web browsing functions with low power usage would be developed; by 2019, digital billboard would be able to reflect ambient light and consume low power, and foldable or rollable e-devices would appear; by 2030, there would be e-devices with magazine-quality color and can be viewed in bright sunlight with low power consumption, and there would be virtually indestructible e-sheets as thin and as rollable as rubber place mats. More or less as Heikenfeld predicted, in early 2012, color e-reader were available to consumers (C. Mims); and in November 2012, the world’s first video-capable color e-paper appeared in Japan (R. Holly).

The latest advacement—flexible e-paper tablet, developed by Queen’s University in collaboration with Plastic Logic and Intel Labs, was released in Jan 2013 (J. Condliffe). It is a flexible paper computer that looks and feels like a sheet of paper but with a flexible touchscreen and many computer-like functionalities. For instance, users can drag and drop items between tablets, share PDFs by tapping two tablets together, or forward a video by bending the tablet. According to Human Media Lab of Queen’s University, these tablets could replace the need for papers or printouts:

papertab can file and display thousands of paper documents, replacing the need for a computer monitor and stacks of papers or printouts. unlike traditional tablets, papertabs keep track of their location relative to each other, and the user, providing a seamless experience across all apps, as if they were physical computer windows.

papertabs are lightweight and robust, so they can easily be tossed around on a desk while providing a magazine-like reading experience. By bending one side of the display, users can also navigate through pages like a magazine, without needing to press a button.

(not dated, Human Media Lab)


With the proliferation of electronic contents freely or cheaply available, and with the many advantages of ebooks, there is increasing need for e-reading. However, the special format, expectations for more and better functionalities and conveniences require special coding for ebooks and special software or devices to read the ebooks. These needs and expectations are the opportunities as well as challenges for e-paper technology. Though e-paper technology has made rapid advancement, especially in the past few years, more breakthroughs are still to be made in order for e-paper to be more widely adopted. Judging from the impressive current development in e-paper technology, there is enough reason to believe that more breakthroughs will be achieved, and at least in some areas, e-paper will replace print paper in a not too far future.


Condliffe, J. (2013, Jan 7). These flexible e-paper tablets could change your desk forever. Retrieved from http://gizmodo.com/e-paper

Electronic paper. (n. d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_paper

Heikenfeld. J., Drzaic, P., Yeo, J., & Koch, T. (2011). Review Paper: A critical review of the present and future prospects for electronic paper. The Journal of the Society for Information Display. 19(2), pp. 129-156.

Human Media Lab. (n. d.). Revolutionary paper tablet computer reveals future tablets to be thin and flexible as sheets of paper. Retrieved from http://www.hml.queensu.ca/papertab

Lebert, M. (2009, Aug 26). A short history of ebooks. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29801/29801-pdf.pdf

Mims, C. (2012, March 1). Color e-readers finally available to consumers. Retrieved from http://www.technologyreview.com/view/427119/color-e-readers-finally-available-to-consumers/

Norman, J. (n. d.). From cave paintings to the Internet: Chronological and thematic studies on the history of information and media. Retrieved from http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=2999

Rouse, M. (2007, May). E-paper (radio paper or electronic paper). Retrieved from http://searchmobilecomputing.techtarget.com/definition/e-paper
Russell Holly. (2012, Feb 2). World’s first video-capable color e-paper demonstrated. Retrieved from http://www.geek.com/articles/mobile/worlds-first-video-capable-color-e-paper-demonstrated-2012112


  1. I really enjoyed your look at e-reading technologies here. I was rather surprised to learn that early attempts at e-booking goes back to the 1930s (and that it was hilariously called “Readies”). I think of e-book technology as a pretty recent development, but it is interesting to look at the different ways we can think of electronic reading (and the long history that goes along with that). I don’t usually think of reading on a computer screen as “e-reading” but of course it is exactly that. The digitization of alphabetic letters was one of the very earliest uses of computers, and your article is a nice reminder of that. Computers are used for so many different purposes now. The cheap availability of quality video is one the major recent development, and the worldwide connectedness that the internet provides is another major catalyst that has taken over how we think about what the computer can do.

    As a proud e-reader owner and user, I am also very interested in your discussion of e-paper and where those technologies are going. We are so used to new technologies that it takes a lot to impress a jaded customer base, but the idea of interactive paper that looks and feels essentially the same as wood pulp paper is really impressive. As these developments arise, it is fun to take a step back and think about just how much of a science fiction future we are living in.

    Great paper!


  2. Thanks Jaspring. I wonder about whether the prime uses of epaper will actually be for published works or instead for advertisements? I imagine shelf-talkers and posters in bookstores could be of epaper and updated remotely with whatever is being promoted that week, or even that hour.

    Not this paper specifically (pubbed in 2011), but Elastic Path is an interesting source to follow in terms of their studies on consumer behaviors and attitudes towards print and digital media


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