How digital devices evolved (I)

Textbooks have remained unaltered for decades. Although their composition has evolved into more and more innovative and attractive materials for the students, the way they interact with them has not changed because of the limited possibilities of paper. Nevertheless, the advances of hardware and software during the last decades were the basis for newer and more effective methods aimed to transmit knowledge.

Apple iBooksThe first reliable opportunity to change how students used their textbooks came with one of the first attempts to create a tablet-PC by Microsoft in 1999. It was in 2000 when this company showed their first prototype in Las Vegas, which was the size of a standard clipboard and weighed around 1.4 kilograms. In late 2002 Microsoft officially released Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which was only available to OEMs and some other manufacturers like HP, Toshiba, ViewSonic and Xplore. The new released version in 2005 was coded to improve the handwriting recognition, so any device running this OS could be used in an easy way to take hand notes, being able to convert notes to text more efficiently than the first version. But, even if the tablet PC was primarily oriented to be used with a stylus, its OS was designed to be used like a portable PC. The tablet-PC was a multi-purpose device, but it was heavy and difficult to handle and its resistive retro-illuminated screen was not a solution as a substitute for paper. In fact, the lack of intuitive software and the poor usability of the device as a touch tablet, caused it had not a great success in the educational sector as it originally was pretended. Its high price, its weight, the heat and the lack of developers of educative materials for this platform did the rest.

Some emerging companies were dedicating their resources to create a lightweight device, with low power consumption and an easily readable screen even under direct sunlight conditions. In 1997 E Ink Corporation was founded, as a spin-off of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and soon became the most important developer and provider of electronic ink displays used by companies like Sony, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Hanvon, and other more. Their screen technology was the most similar to paper because it had to be read using reflected light, and this lead to a very low energy consumption. This is what manufacturers had been waiting for. There was a virtual explosion of e-readers in the market after Sony launched the first e-reader with an E Ink display in early 2004 in Japan: the LIBRIé EBR-1000EP. But, even if Sony was the first company to launch a true e-reader, it was Amazon who was the most successful when combined its huge book shop with its own proprietary reader in 2007: the Kindle. However, the E Ink technology, even if it has been able to become a standard within the editorial industry, it could not penetrate into the educational sector, mainly because of its own limitations:
  • Its 16 tones of gray and its low refresh screen rate did not make possible to show video and any other embedded visual dynamic multimedia contents.
  • The design of an e-reader is mainly oriented to read, not to interact with the text in a multimedia way, so its design implies a low memory capacity and low power processors.
  • There is an absolute lack of software applications because most of the software platforms are closed to independent developers.
  • A 9.7” display e-reader has a high price compared to 6” size readers.


Next: How digital devices evolved (II)

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