Nature Knows Best: The Future of e-Readers

Last Updated Sep 24, 2009 5:51 PM EDT

Imagine this: A butterfly's wings and the way they use ambient light to generate colors all along the spectrum, as needed.

Or this: The microstructure of opals, and the magic by which a substance made up of nothing but glass and water (both of which are colorless) can generate an endless color spectrum as well.

These are the key insights I obtained today at a panel about bringing color and video to eReader devices at the EmTech (Emerging Technology) Conference here at MIT. Afterward, I started pondering whether there is any issue facing any company, either from a business or a technology perspective, that hasn't already been dealt with in nature.

To be explicit, rocks, plants, and creatures of all kinds -- many of which are far better adapted to this earth, frankly, than we humans are -- may well contain the key to your success as media executive, going forward.

The people I listened to today are trying to figure out, on behalf of their companies, when and how color and video will be integrated successfully into eReaders -- not a small question given the explosion in adoption of the Kindle and other devices we have been witnessing this year.

It does appear we are at a tipping point in the history of reading, which also happens to sit at the center of the fate of our existing and future media industries. There are tradeoffs, as the speakers explained, between what technologies can deliver and what consumers will experience or expect to experience.

But there also is going to be an explosion in options. Twenty-five eBook platforms exist today; over the coming year another 35-40 new platforms will come into market. Meanwhile, more people are already reading books over iPhones (not explicitly one of these platforms) than over Kindles and all of the others combined.

Besides books, there also will soon be new digital platforms for reading newspapers and magazines: An 11-inch screen, basically the size of a broadsheet, is imminent. These devices also have to be able to solve the complex physics of operating successfully as reading options in sunlight, or room light, or at slanted angles and under other challenging conditions, but these guys are all over that stuff.

I was further heartened to learn that vision-challenged people will gain new access to books via these technologies, and that our poor, bent teenagers carrying backpacks filled with bloated textbooks that weigh a ton, may soon find relief, as well, via digital textbooks.

Most of all, though, it was good to re-learn that the business of creating a successful business in this time of disruptive technological change will, in the end, come down to better understanding the ecosystem around us, the world in which we all are only one small part.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital,, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.