E-ink, the company, holds the patents of the pigment core tech that makes "paper-like" displays possible and strongarms the display manufacturers and the users of their displays to absolute silence. Any research project or startup that comes up with a better alternative technology gets bought out or buried by their lawyers ASAP.
E-ink don't make the display themselves, they make the e-ink film, filled with their patented pigment particles and sell it to display manufacturers who package the film in glass and a TFT layer and add a driver interface chip, all of which are proprietary AF and unless you're the size of Amazon, forget about getting any detailed datasheets about how to correctly drive their displays to get sharp images.
In my previous company we had to reverse engineer their waveforms in order to build usable products even though we were buying quite a lot of displays.
With so much control over the IP and the entire supply chain and due to the broken nature of the patent system, they're an absolute monopoly and have no incentive to lower prices or to bring any innovations to the market and are a textbook example of what happens to technology when there is zero competition.
So, when you see the high prices of e-paper gadgets, don't blame the manufacturers, as they're not price gouging, blame E-ink, as their displays make up the bulk of the BOM.
Tough, some of their tech is pretty dope. One day E-ink sent over a 32" 1440p prototype panel with 32 shades of B&W to show off. My God, was the picture gorgeous and sharp. I would have loved to have it as a PC monitor so I tried building an HDMI interface controller for it with an FPGA but failed due to a lack of time and documentation. Shame, although not a big loss as an estimated cost for that was near the five figure ballpark and the current consumption was astronomical, sometimes triggering the protection of the power supply on certain images.
At @4:08 the company representative says
> Our current schedule is to bring gen-1 productions to the market in 2020
Well, I guess I'll be crossing my fingers that it'll happen as soon as this pandemic over.
It's B&W and much lower contrast than current gen e-paper, but viewing angle looks great (maybe 120 degrees confirmed from the video?). They definitely need a matte surface though; that glare was terrible.
Kaleido is a b/w eink panel with a colour LCD overlaid.
There's tech that looks much better like eInk's ACeP (much stronger color saturation) but it needs multiple flashing refreshes to update so it's not feasible for interactive devices. They're just being marketed for advertising and the like.
everytime this topic of EInk comes up, people on HN seem to claim there's a patent thing. I ask the simple question of which patent is blocking, and I get lazy answers like patent thicket. To be frank, I suspect those who make that comment aren't actually directly involved in the industry. I've been to SID and other display conferences and the real problem is physics and also lack of funding. What I know is that EInk can't get to the lower cost pricepoint without solving the scale problem which means getting an order for millions of displays. They can't solve cheap large panels because that would require solving yield issues which again becomes a matter of scale. Startups show up but can't get the billion or so that's needed to get to scale. You can see this pattern repeated with companies like Mirasol. The real problem is that nobody wants to put millions into making displays when they could get higher ROI from putting it into another hot AI/ML or internet service company.
I think a more realistic timeframe for usable eInk patents is 20 years from the first Kindle release, so 2027 or so.
Ignorant question: are you not allowed to start developing a product, or "planning" to develop a product, before a patent it infringes on expires? I see from glancing at Wikipedia that with a US patent, "making" the item is infringement, but where is the line on that? Is it that you literally can't fully make the thing, i.e. only get 99% of the way there and you're fine? Or is it infringement to have an on-the-record chat with a buddy that you're thinking of working on X when the patent for X expires? (Responses in the form of LMGTFY are welcome, I couldn't quickly figure out how to search for this.)
Lawyer-no-longer-practicing-patent-law here: You have to look at each individual, numbered claim (at the end of the printed patent). Treat each claim as its own infringement checklist, with each term in that claim as a checklist item. IF: Every checklist item in that claim is present in what you're doing, either literally or, as an edge case, by a "substantial equivalent," a term of art; THEN: That claim is infringed. (It only takes one infringed claim for liability.)
A canonical hypothetical claim is this: "1. A seating structure comprising: (a) a generally-horizontal seating platform; and (b) at least four legs, of substantially-equal length, each affixed, substantially orthogonally, to the same side of the seating platform to extend in the same general direction relative to the seating platform."
For that hypothetical claim, a tripod-style three-legged stool with angled legs wouldn't infringe because four legs are required for infringement. (There'd probably be an argument over whether the angled legs satisfied the "substantially orthogonally" element.)
For the same claim, suppose that you had a conventional four-legged chair with a back. That chair would infringe claim 1 because the checklist elements are all present; the addition of the back is irrelevant to the infringement analysis.
(In chemical- and biological fields, extra elements can be relevant to infringement analysis, for reasons we won't go into here.)
Another edge case: If you "induce" someone to infringe the claim, you're liable as an infringer. Still another is "contributory infringement," which I won't go into here.
> Or is it infringement to have an on-the-record chat with a buddy that you're thinking of working on X when the patent for X expires?
No infringement there — for infringement to exist, someone has to actually make, use, sell, offer to sell, or import the subject matter of at least one issued claim of the patent.
(Usual disclaimer: I'm not your lawyer, don't rely on this as legal advice about your specific situation, small changes in facts can sometimes make a big difference in outcome, etc.)
Generally, you can be sued for infringement whenever you make, use, etc., anything that comes within the scope of any issued, unexpired, not-yet-invalidated claim.
There's a nebulous experimental-use exception to liability; it's currently of uncertain scope .
> If I build a factory that produces chairs, and then hoard all those chairs in my house, can I be told to knock it off?
Generally, yes — if the chairs come within the scope of an issued, unexpired claim that hasn't yet been invalidated, then simply making the chairs constitutes infringement of that claim.
> What if I build the factory and then have it just stand there, producing nothing?
If the factory itself doesn't infringe a claim, then there's no infringement under the stated circumstances.
Same disclaimer as above.
 See, e.g. https://www.lrrc.com/webfiles/TCL-KK_DS.pdf (not an endorsement).
It was a really hard problem that required totally different tooling from a normal display manufacturer so I'd absolutely expect that to be a huge source of delays in getting set up.
You can't just convert an existing display factory to make e-ink displays, so the startup costs are huge and the odds are good that you'll take at least a few years to work out the quirks. Probably more like 4-6... if you get lucky and can figure out what tools to use quickly.
But the narrative is, this locks out generics somehow. The new patent can't cover the subject matter of the old patent, as its automatically prior art, so only the improvements are covered by the new patent. If the "improvements" are so minor as to be irrelevant then I don't see how this is a real impediment to a generic. If on the other hand there's a significant improvement, it seems like that's really something that should be getting patent protection.
I just feel like there's always a step missing in the usual simple descriptions of evergreening I see. Is this all just tied in with something like doctors writing brand-name prescriptions, and the brand name just gets these minor pointless "improvements," but enough to diverges away from what the generic is so it can't be easily substituted?
Even if you're likely to win, it brings a generic offering below profitability.
To a certain degree, it doesn't matter if your patent isn't completely valid, or doesn't completely match what your competitors are doing. The point is to have deeper pockets than them and be able to spend more on lawyers than them. As long as your patent lasts long enough in court to stop your competitors from doing whatever you don't want them to do, it has achieved its goal.
Patents are so broken.
(IANAL, just an MBA who's heard some war stories).
There's not much of a market-based solution to a legally protected monopoly. The best you can hope for is to higher demand at lower price points that makes a lower price profitable
Consider: why wasn't Panasonic able to capture all of the patents for LCD displays? If "patents" explained the problem, then why are high-resolution color screens so cheap?
IMO, the answer to this question is that there are simply more ways to implement color LCD displays than there are ways to implement e-paper displays (as far as we know).
Other firms could design electronic-paper displays, but they're all going to work basically the same as E-ink displays, so they'll run afoul of E-ink's patents.
FWIW, the LCD "tech tree" got wider after the early 1970s patents started expiring in the 1990s; that's when LCD prices started to fall. Maybe the same will happen to e-paper when E-ink's earliest patents start expiring, but it's no guarantee. As long as the tech tree remains narrow, E-ink could control the market for decades more yet.
If they hadn't come up with the technology and written the patents in the first place, we wouldn't even be here talking about it.
Just because someone is an innovator doesn't mean they are for continual innovations or for the spread of innovations or like the idea of people building on their works.
I think the inventors should be rewarded, but it seems misguided to do it by making them have to exploit an exclusive hold on their invention which blockades progress. Why not just give them prize money? You could set objective standards whereby a new invention that gets produced over X quantity by any party gets Y prize money.
Consider Linux, a bunch of companies have made bank from that.
For example, if a technology took ten years and ten billion dollars to develop to the point of it being commercially viable, well, yeah, a patent-protected monopoly is likely the ethically correct privilege the inventors should be granted.
An example (out of many) of bullshit patents and monopolies that should have never been granted are the horseshit patents Color Kinetics got years ago. These people had the audacity to patent the use of pulse-width-modulation to control the intensity of LEDs and make lights that could produce different colors. The patent office granted these people patent after patent. Once they had enough they started to attack the entire LED industry. Philips ended-up acquiring them. They let the industry know they would not enforce the bullshit patents. Still, the crooks took their thievery all the way to the bank.
As for the relative cost of LCD's vs. E-ink. I think the primary difference is very simple: Volume. I haven't done the numbers, but I think I can say that the LCD industry is at least 1,000 times larger in volume. It's like the LCD vs. OLED comparison. Volume is king.
Another element is the tooling-up for manufacturing. A modern LCD manufacturing plant runs in the billions. Two billion dollars the last time I checked, but I haven't been in the industry for ten years and have lost touch. You are not going to take a multi-billion-dollar factory and slice-off a corner to make e-ink displays. These factories are highly automated and tuned machines. They are designed to make millions of displays per month.
This means that making e-ink displays requires putting-up a specialized factory or retooling an old LCD factory that might no-longer be competitive for making LCD's. Regardless of the approach, this is likely to be a very expensive undertaking. That, coupled with lower volume, is guaranteed to translate into higher prices.
Disclaimer: I was in the high performance display business for ten years. Exited a decade ago. So, yeah, I am a little disconnected as to the latest and greatest and what might be new in manufacturing. That said, I get the sense that material changes haven't been as significant in the last ten years as they were during the prior ten.
I think your observation is much more accurate than the other speculations about patents I have seen.
I see people often simplify businesses along high contrast dividing lines: big/small, greedy/not greedy, green/dirty, startup/lifestyle, etc.
Anyone who simplifies businesses along any line on a monochromatic plane has never run enough of a business to fully understand just how complex things can be. They grab one variable (minimum wage, taxes, regulations, oil, etc.) and think it can be manipulated without it affecting the aforementioned multivariate equation.
A sad example of this just took place a few weeks ago in California. I think it was in San Diego that the politicians decided grocery workers had to have a $4 per hour "hero" raise due to working through COVID. While everyone could agree that there are people who made sacrifices for the rest of us, as I learned to say, some problems don't pass math and physics. the end result was that the Kroger company, which owns Ralphs and a bunch of other brands, closed four stores (maybe 2, don't remember) because there was no way they could keep the doors open if they paid everyone an extra $4 per hour. So, a forced wage raise actually destroyed jobs --and this happened nearly instantly-- and people who had work found themselves on the street.
Businesses are not single variable problems.
Still, it sucks that people lost their jobs this way. We need a system where politicians suffer real consequences for their actions. Not sure what this would look like, but it sounds good.
What we don't know is if the $4/hr hike caused employers to have to reduce worker hours, shift people to part-time basis, etc. Maybe that information will come out at some point.
Imagine a situation where you have 50 people making $12 per hour and you face an instant increase in labor costs to $16 per hour, or 33%.
That means the store has to INSTANTLY generate at least 33% more in profits (not sales, profits) in order to cover that increase. I don't know any business that can simply will a 33% increase in performance. This is where political thinking quickly becomes delusional. And, no, they are not sitting on fat margins that would allow absorbing such a thing.
So the choice is between an overpriced device from a major player, or a cheap device with next to no support from a no-name vendor.
That is one thing I got my reMarkable2 for. It is a great device and very useful. But one thing stands out: it runs Linux and offers you shell access. You can just upload your own programs to it and tweak many things. Even just having the ability to upload your own "power off" picture to it is a really nice thing. If the makers of the reMarkable would push a bit more into the direction of enabling users to create software, as in documenting the system and creating APIs/libraries to use for integration into the existing software stack, this could grow enormously. The hardware is great, now comes the software.
What I dream of, would be scenarios which make great use of the always-visible screen content. Like a dashboard which shows you your upcoming appointments, unread notifications, perhaps just the weather status. It refreshes every 5 minutes but otherwise doesn't consume energy or distract you with animations. Or being able to control the e-Reader from your computer. Reading a man-page? Why not send it to the e-Ink screen and have it displayed there until some other content is sent? Like a book which you keep open beside your computer, just remotely configurable. So much things could be done by just adding software to existing e-Ink hardware. And if such an environment grows, probably so will the hardware offerings targeting this market.
1: my favorite lock screen image is the GoT map "The North 02". It is unbelievable on the e-Ink and looks like printed on paper.
The remarkable is fully open source isn't it? Have any users done work towards adding functionality?
That's surprising, since I was always under the impression that E-Ink displays were pretty low-power. Is it the drawing of the new image that requires so much energy in a small instant?
I suspect that low refresh rates are partly due to the problems of power delivery to the pixels via transparent conductors.
Although they never said it outright, it sounded like the main deterrent is just anyone else making money with an angle Disney hadn't explored. It sounds similar to eInk refusing millions if it means someone else makes a greater fortune.
I wonder if there's a non-margin factor in play. Maybe something like:
* They don't want to be in the "support" business, so by keeping the product line away from hobbyists/small players, they keep their overhead low.
* Their main concern is product secrecy and therefore will only deal with firms large enough to take NDAs and licenses seriously
* Their manufacturing capacity is finite and not easily scaled, so they couldn't actually deliver on a hypothetical millions-of-screens-per-year order.
* Some sort of brand protectionism. I see a lot of "we could probably hack and rig an E-ink display to do something outside its normal sales case" discussion. I could imagine a situation where they ended up-- in the eyes of end consumers-- responsible for the failings of such products. They never said to use their panel as a desktop monitor for playing 60fps video, but they can't stop someone from trying and then bellyaching about it to the world.
Of course, a mandatory-licensing mechanism could help escape whatever tarpit they're in.
Again, I think it's...rather a lot of hubris to assume that a company is doing the less profitable thing (and it is an assumption, since none of us have better data than they do).
That said, sure, we can speculate there may be other factors at play.
If you're saying that even holding a monopoly, the most profitable price point is at market saturation, I'd need to see something backing that. And also what you mean by market saturation; the cost of parts for an iPhone 11 Pro is estimated to be ~$490. The list price is, what, $1100? You're basically saying that either they've already achieved market saturation, and would gain no new customers dropping the price to $600 (parts + $100 for distribution, assembly, etc), or that they're leaving money on the table. I find both of those very hard to believe. So maybe I'm misunderstanding you?
Software patents are the ones that make no sense because software is already protected by copyright and patents were never intended to protect algorithms.
This is stated theory of why patents work, not actual evidence that they work.
So, less jobs, less innovation, less sharing of development, and more duplication of security efforts that are shared by every company. Getting rid of patents would be a recipe for further entrenching existing wealth. You'd have no protection from a major corporation replicating your garage-company's processes. As it is, companies have a hard enough time fending off the likes of China which does not respect western IP.
Wow, that is a very serious allegation. But I googled and googled and googled, and found not even one such lawsuit. I also see competing tech like Clearink. Could you show us proof that what you claimed about "buried by their lawyers" is actually occurring?
So yes the patent is responsible for the existence of the monopoly, but it is also responsible for the existence of the product that the monopoly is built upon.
I think a 10 year limit on the monopoly is a good compromise (which is basically what the patent system is already doing). Even with those companies patenting DNA... after 10 years the argument is over.