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Rory Cellan-Jones

Plastic Logic's long journey to Vegas

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 31 Dec 09, 12:07 GMT

In Las Vegas next week, a twenty-five year journey could come to a successful conclusion, when a British company launches what it believes will be a triumphant combination of science and technology. Plastic Logic's e-reader, the Que, will be unveiled on the opening morning of the Consumer Electronics Show. It could be one of the show's stand-out products - or it could end up buried under an avalanche of hype about a forthcoming rival device from a better-known firm.

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This journey began in the 1980s at Cambridge University's world-renowned Cavendish laboratory, where the physicist Richard Friend was working on carbon-based materials for semi-conductors. He tried and failed to get electronics companies interested in the plastic light-emitting diodes which emerged from his research - but when he teamed up with another Cambridge lecturer Henning Sirringhaus, they ended up finding ways to print transistors onto plastic. It was this work which led to the development of the light, flexible displays which Plastic Logic believes will revolutionise the way we read.

On a snowy day just before Christmas, I went to meet the two men at Plastic Logic's offices on the Cambridge Science Park. They are both still teaching at the university, while keeping an eye on the progress of the firm they founded in 2000. And while it has taken a decade for Plastic Logic to bring its first product to market, Sir Richard - he was knighted in 2003 - was confident that the long wait would be worthwhile:

"The most impressive thing is it's an integration of fundamental science and world-leading engineering - it's the thing that the British are not supposed to be able to do."

At that stage, they were not able to show me the final product, but I was allowed to handle prototype displays developed in Cambridge and then manufactured at their plant in Dresden.

They are light and flexible, and Professor Sirringhaus told me the aim was to provide the same experience you get from paper, rather than the one you get from the glass which is needed for conventional screens:

"The whole reading experience is about holding something that is unbreakable.
"It's light; you can treat it like paper; you can stuff it in your briefcase. If you want to read a business document or paper, then the weight of the glass used in conventional technology is quite significant."

Plastic Logic has signed deals with a number of major newspaper groups, including the Financial Times and USA Today, to make their titles available each day on the Que e-reader. The product, which will enter a fast-growing market dominated by products like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, will be aimed principally at the business market. While the technology would permit a roll-up screen, it seems they've gone for something more conventional, so the Que may not look that different from e-readers with a glass screen.

Picture shows: (l-r) STEFAN BUTLER as Roger (2nd from left), MARTIN FREEMAN as Chris Curry, EDWARD BAKER-DULY as Hermann Hauser, SAM PHILLIPS as Steve. TX: BBC FOUR Thursday 8th October 2009The other crucial figure in the story of Plastic Logic is Herman Hauser, the scientist and venture capitalist who's been involved in many of the ground-breaking businesses to emerge from Cambridge over the last two decades - you may have caught him in Micro Men, BBC4's recent drama about the rivalry between Sinclair and Acorn Computers. He put up the money back in 2000 which allowed Friend and Sirringhaus to form Plastic Logic, and he's been instrumental in raising more finance as the years have gone by.

What's really amazing about this business is that that it has gone all the way from research in a laboratory, to manufacturing a product, to building a global sales and marketing team - much of that operation is now based in California - without sacrificing its independence. Which might just be a mistake. A less courageous option would have been to license its technology to Amazon or Sony - or maybe Apple - and let them use their undoubted marketing expertise to sell the idea of plastic displays to the world.

There are now convincing reports that Apple has an event scheduled for late January where it will unveil a mystery new product. The blogs and fan sites are alive with feverish speculation about the iSlate - supposedly the name of a tablet computer which will provide everything from books, TV programmes and music to the solution to global warming.

I'm as fascinated as anyone to see what Apple really has been hiding up Steve Jobs' sleeve, but I hope that amid all the hullabaloo, the launch of Plastic Logic's Que next Thursday will not be overlooked. I will be in the United States to cover this and a number of other technology stories next week, when this blog will have a new look and a new name. So thanks for listening in 2009 - and see you next year.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The technology looks to be fantastic. A colour screen sometime in the future be the icing on the cake! It does seem to be a shame that they are going down the same route as the Amazon and Sony readers, they aren't that great.

    In terms of remaining independent, I think it is a good idea. Sure, economically, licensing the product to another more established company would have probably been more beneficial, but then there would be less competition and as a consumer competition is good. Also, wouldn't most people who have worked on the team feel as if they didn't "complete" the project if they did license the technology, it is 25 years worth of work after all! Larger companies may also sideline the technology.

    As for the "Apple tablet", which really doesn't need to have been mentioned, are you trying to be sarcastic, writing "to the solution to global warming"? Sorry for asking, but text doesn't carry sarcasm very well.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great story, Rory. Like you, I hope the timing of the announcement isn't hijacked by Apple. I can only imagine how Que are feeling about the timing!

    Enjoyed reading your posts in 2009 - particularly the "Connected Africa" series, of course - and look forward to seeing what's in store in 2010. Happy new year!

  • Comment number 3.

    Apple and Twitter.

    Two hugely minority pieces of tech that the BBC seems to believe is the most important thing in the world.

    Moronic.

  • Comment number 4.

    Apple set the agenda in many of the fields they produce products in, as such whatever they announce later this month will be closely watched by everyone in the tech industry.

  • Comment number 5.

    "It was this work which led to the development of the light, flexible displays which Plastic Logic believes will revolutionise the way we read."

    Would they be meaning the "we that can afford it" when they say "the way we read."?

    I certainly won't be revolutionising the way I read any time soon, newspapers, and books all printed on good old fashioned paper are the way forward for at least the best part of my lifetime I suspect, besides reading things on my laptop or PC. Guess I could win the lottery though...

    And I agree with BeyondThePale can the BBC tech bloggers (i.e. Rory and Maggie) do a tech blog about a new piece of kit without mentioning Apple or Twitter!? Perhaps if the media stopped mentioning Apple products such as the Que might not be overlooked.

    Still I guess this blog is better than the HYS topics, their big news discussion of the day is who Dr Who is now!

  • Comment number 6.

    Be fair, the Apple iSlate is just as relevant as the Kindle or the Sony eReader (though no mention of the nook? Because it's not available in the UK or because current reports are pretty harsh?). To not mention it would look odd when it's the other big eReader rumoured for release this year. What next? Do we demand an article about the market a new Windows OS must enter into have no mention of whatever Mac is doing? Must they write an article on the spread of smartphones without mentioning the iPhone?

    I think Plastic Logic have shot themselves in the foot by not making it flexible. That would be what would make it stand out amongst the larger newspaper style eReaders. However, the thing that's keeping eReaders from really taking off is cost, so maybe they decided to keep prices down for now.

  • Comment number 7.

    Great Products Rory, but I don't understand why any of your reports does not contain a close shot of the product(s), for example in this video, there is not a single face shot of this plastic book. Previously Nexus One was only shown from a distance and with a light reflection in the screen. Not a complain but just a request to put more attention to the report quality.

  • Comment number 8.

    As a practising barrister I think this device is very exciting. It has the potential to revolutionise courtroom litigation. No more massive bundles of documents and legal authorities assembled in dozens of unwieldy lever arch files. Instead everyone in the courtroom, judge included, will have all their documents and authorities copied or scanned in as pdfs and immediately accessible on their Ques, with the additional option of marking-up or flagging with 'electronic yellow stickers'.

  • Comment number 9.

    "Be fair, the Apple iSlate is just as relevant as the Kindle or the Sony eReader (though no mention of the nook? Because it's not available in the UK or because current reports are pretty harsh?). "

    The iWhat? See, all that rumour was just for vaporware. The product they did announce is not an e-reader (in the Kindle or Sony eReader sense).

    "And I agree with BeyondThePale can the BBC tech bloggers (i.e. Rory and Maggie) do a tech blog about a new piece of kit without mentioning Apple or Twitter!? "

    Indeed, though I suppose we should be lucky that we get coverage of a non-Apple product at all... I wonder if Apple pay for this advertising, that the BBC isn't supposed to do anyway, or is it all for free?

  • Comment number 10.

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  • Comment number 12.

    Its really great information for me.keep going,

  • Comment number 13.

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  • Comment number 14.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 15.

    I tell you if it's Vegas, then I'm all over it like a wet blanket. Especially if it's bingo gaming in Las Vegas. I run my own bingo-room blog and I draw lots of inspiration from Las Vegas bingo halls. Fascinating stuff! Great piece.

  • Comment number 16.

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  • Comment number 20.

    Great story, Rory. Like you, I hope the timing of the announcement isn't hijacked by Apple. I can only imagine how Que are feeling about the timing!
    Sarah

  • Comment number 21.

    <RICHPOST>Combine this story with the one the bbc did about 5 months ago about the discovery of graphene and you have an absolute winner, and we are not only going to see some great displays but glasses/eyeware, even contact lenses are looking more like reality now. <p>Chris Brookfield<br><BR /><a href="http://www.uraugmentedreality.com/">Augmented Reality</a></p> </RICHPOST>

 

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