How to Add Color to a Kindle: Pixel Qi’s Cheap Screens

Published on June 23, 2009
by Peter Kafka

062309atdpixelqiAmazon’s (AMZN) Kindle gets many plaudits, but it also gets one consistent criticism: Why can’t it come with a color screen?

It can, say the folks at Pixel Qi, a start-up based in Silicon Valley and Taiwan: It could use the cheap, lightweight color screens that we’re going to make.

Pixel Qi is the brainchild of Mary Lou Jepsen, who was best known as the CTO at the One Laptop Per Child project that makes supercheap laptops for kids in dirt-poor nations. Her new company has a similar thrust with a different goal: Produce cheap color screens that can be used in supercheap “netbooks” or in Kindle-like devices.

Jepsen says she can pull this off and create screens that cost less than the E-Ink ones used in Kindles and other devices like Sony’s (SNE) Reader because she’s using LCD technology, which has an existing industrial infrastructure to support it.

Meanwhile, she says, E-Ink screens will struggle to incorporate color because the only way to do that is to put a color layer above the existing monochrome screen, which will end up making the screen harder to read.

Almost all of these technology claims are impossible for a knuckle-dragger like me to assess, but I will note that I’ve heard other companies working on E-Ink-based readers make the same argument about the difficulty that color poses.

I’m still not convinced that color makes a Kindle or a Kindle-like device that much more successful. I know that the publishing industry wants it, but that has as least as much to do with the business model that industry types think that color can sustain as with anything else. Perhaps readers, the kinds of readers who spring for a reading device that doesn’t make phone calls, will be fine with black and white.

Recall that audiophiles spent years complaining, accurately, that MP3 players like Apple’s (AAPL) iPod produced severely degraded sound. Turns out no one cared. Or at least not enough to outweigh the iPod’s other benefits.

But assuming that the netbook/tablet trend has legs, there should still be a market for the screen that Jepsen says she can make and get on the market early next year.

Recently I sat down with Pixel Qi chief operating officer John Ryan, who happens to be married to Jepsen and who walked me through the company’s pitch. We tried our best to show off the demo screens, but it’s the kind of thing that you really need to see in person; even if I wasn’t using a Flip camera, I think this would be difficult to capture. But Ryan was a good sport about it, and although you can’t see the screens that well, you can get a good glimpse of Central Park during a rare bit of sun.

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