A little birdie told me several weeks ago that Polymer Vision, maker of the "rollable" pocket-size Readius, would be filing for bankruptcy, and lo and behold, they did, as reported on July 15 by the Hampshire Chronicle, the local paper of Millbrook, England, where the company was based. The story has since been picked up by Engadget, and here's our two cents.

First, a bit of background: Royal Philips Electronics was one of the early investors in E Ink, which makes the displays for nearly all eReaders on the market today. Deciding that eReaders were not a core business focus, in 2005 Philips spun off iRex Technologies, a company that has since seen modest success with its B2B sales model for eReaders, and spun off Polymer Vision in 2006. Polymer Vision was planning to manufacture its own displays, and use an ODM in Asia for the device manufacturing, with the goal of dominating a new market for pocket-sized eReaders.

The idea that people may want to read on a smaller device than the Kindle and its brethren isn't crazy: In fact, according to Forrester's estimates, combined sales of Kindles and Sony Readers are outstripped by the number of consumers who read books on their iPhones. The iPhone display isn't optimized for reading like an E Ink screen is, but it's good enough for many consumers. What it means: Even if Polymer Vision had more success funding its initiatives, it would have been a hard sell to convince consumers that buying a pocket-sized reading device was worth it. Polymer Vision planned to launch its product first in Western Europe; Forrester's data shows that 35% of European iPhone owners and 30% of European smartphone owners use the mobile Internet once a day or more. European consumers, like consumers elsewhere, are using their phones for more than voice and text, and single-use devices like eReaders are a hard sell to a market that gets so much utility from their multi-use phones.

Does this mean that the market for eReaders is limited to Kindle-and-larger devices? No. We expect to see:

  • More reading on smartphones, via apps like Stanza (owned by Amazon), the iPhone Kindle app, ScrollMotion, and Shortcovers (the eBook store from Indigo, Canada's largest bookseller).
  • E Ink accessories for smartphones, such as a $99 E Ink screen that lets users browse, buy, and navigate on their phones but read on a separate screen that can be synched with Bluetooth, USB, or SD card.
  • More E Ink secondary screens for phones. E Ink already supplies secondary screens for many phones (if you have a clamshell phone that shows the data and time on the outside, that may be an E Ink screen). Primary screens need color and a faster refresh rate than E Ink can provide, but perhaps we'll see more usage of secondary displays for activities like reading.
  • Low-power, fast-refresh, color screens for netbooks, like those made by Pixel Qi (an offshoot from One Laptop Per Child with no relation and no similarity to E Ink technology). Pixel Qi demoed its screens jerry-rigged to Acer netbooks at Computex, and is trying to catalyze the market for its displays in the netbook form factor.