- 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.
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.
The 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.
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites