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Freescale, E Ink Team on Improved e-Book Viewing

Freescale Semiconductor, the microprocessor spinoff of Motorola and ARM processor licensee, announced a licensing deal this week to integrate E Ink display controllers into Freescale's processors.

The deal will merge E Ink's Vizplex electronic paper displays with Freescale's i.MX family of ARM-based system-on-chips (SoC). Both vendors are fairly dominant in the e-book market -- they are both used in the three top-selling e-book devices, Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Digital Reader and iRex's line of e-readers.

The companies said they expect their work also will "spark innovation for emerging product categories," including e-newspapers, tablet PCs, laptop secondary displays and e-notebooks.

But first things first. For OEMs, the integration will save them some money. Merging E Ink's Vizplex display controller with the Freescale i.MX processor technology will reduce the materials needed in a reader by 20 percent, according to Glen Burchers, Freescale's director of consumer segment marketing.

"There is at least one external ASIC that will be integrated and that always has a dramatic cost savings," he told InternetNews.com.

For end users, it will mean both improved display performance and better battery life. Currently, the active life is about 5,000 page turns and standby mode is about two weeks. Freescale is going to focus on improving that standby time for longer periods, according to Burcher.

Freescale is making a separate move that will also improve the performance e-book readers. It will migrate from the 90 nm ARM11 processor to a newer design. Burcher would not say which model, but ARM earlier this week announced that the Cortex-A5 will a replace the ARM9 and ARM11.

While a faster performing e-book has the potential to open up new markets, Burcher said Freescale is still looking at the leisure e-book market as primary driver. The next market could be the education market, but not in the United States, since every district makes its own decisions on book purchases. In China, a government agency sets the curriculum for the entire country. "It's much easier for Asian countries to move to an e-reader than in the U.S.," he said.

For E Ink, it means access to Freescale's other customers and a potential to move beyond e-books, according to Sriram Peruvemba, vice president of marketing at E Ink.

"The kind of apps that make the most sense are handheld portable devices," Peruvemba told InternetNews.com. "The advantage of our product is low power draw. An e-book has a battery the size of a cell phone and a display the size of a laptop and it lasts for a week. There's a lot of places where we can take that."

E-books can do animation and some color now, but Peruvemba thinks it will take off next year. Burcher said Freescale will be shipping the new SoC with the updated ARM core in 2010 and he expects end products to be available the same year.

According to a 2009 DisplaySearch report, e-book unit shipments are expected to grow from one million units in 2008 to more than 75 million units in 2018 with a value of approximately $3.8 billion. That will be impacted by international expansion, anticipated price declines and the electronic distribution of newspapers and textbooks.