Flip Tablet

Given that nobody seems to have a screen technology ready for market that’s both (a) daylight-readable, and (b) comparable to an AMOLED or IPS LCD indoors… an interim solution would be a single device with both a conventional tablet screen and E-ink.

My original vision is for a tablet with a conventional 7″ screen, but on the back, it has a 6-7″ E-ink display. I’d expect that only one of them would be active at any one time; the device’s motion sensors could detect when you flip it over, plus it’d also have some other mechanism to select a screen – maybe a hardware button, maybe a particular touchscreen gesture. But however you do the flip, it’s basically just deactivating the one screen and activating the other; if they don’t have identical resolutions, that’d probably involve a configuration change, but that should be no big deal.

So the use model is basically, when you’re indoors you’d generally use it like any other 7″ tablet, with the conventional screen. But when you’re outdoors, you could use the e-ink instead; sure, you’d be somewhat limited by the constraints of E-ink, but you could still do a lot more than you can with a conventional tablet outdoors. E-book reading is the obvious killer app, but most web surfing would be fine – especially reading long-form articles – as well as email and chat.

Apart from the two screens, I see it being a pretty conventional tablet in other ways. It’d be nice if both screens were covered in Gorilla Glass (or equivalent), since the device doesn’t have a back to set it on. And since it’s meant for outdoor use, waterproofing would also be a bonus. Possibly it would make sense to optimize a few apps for E-ink, but I suspect there’d not even be much of that needed.

Cameras might be interesting – again, since the device doesn’t have a back, the question of front- or rear-facing gets a bit muddled. Maybe it has two intermediate-res cameras (say 3-5MP), one on each side, and you just use whichever one’s appropriate for what you’re doing. Or maybe the E-ink would be so lousy as a viewfinder that we can effectively ignore it – but I’d see some interesting use cases if that’s not the case.

Moving beyond the original form factor, the same idea could theoretically work in both larger and smaller sizes. The 9.7″ screen from the Kindle DX would sit nicely on the back of a 10-inch tablet, for example. Thinking about it, it’d also be really handy to have this tech just in a phone – you wouldn’t get full smartphone functionality in direct sunlight, but it’d be a heck of a lot easier to place and receive calls, send & receive texts, and do email than with current displays. [I’ll need a different name, though – “Flip Phone” has too much baggage.]

Another variation is to arrange the two screens in a clamshell, something like Sony’s Tablet P. I’d like to see a 180-degree hinge, personally, so that you could close it with the screens on either the inside or the outside, meaning that you could still use it like an ordinary tablet or E-reader. This form factor would obviate the need for Gorilla Glass, as well as enabling some interesting use cases – such as using it like a mini-laptop, with soft keyboard on the E-ink side serving as IME for whatever’s running on the LCD/LED. But it also introduces some awkwardnesses: other than specialized use cases like the keyboard, does the device still only drive one screen at a time? Or does it get into the same kind of split-screen craziness that the Sony did? And it obviously increases the build complexity.

What would it take to build any of these devices? Obviously, I’d require a hardware partner, some company with experience making white-label tablets but willing to build something outside the conventional box. And it’d take some Android firmware hacking to organize the “flip” – theoretically, I could do this part, but in practice, it’s not an area of the OS that I have any experience with. And finally, it’d require all the overhead that a hardware business always does, like inventory, distribution, marketing, and so on.

IOW, it’d need capital – either conventional venture, or maybe crowdsourced. But either way, you’d need to convince the backers that you had the means to pull this off.

I also suspect that a small, indie hardware venture like this would have trouble competing on raw specs with the big boys, and thus this device would be a tough sell to the average consumer. It’s already going to have higher manufacturing costs, just from the extra screen, and it’d also be at an automatic disadvantage in today’s thinness wars. It’d have the one really unique hook, but would that be enough to hang a device on?

So ideally, this device should be made by an existing hardware player, who can get that stuff right. The obvious candidates are Sony and Amazon – they have the E-ink experience.

But I’m afraid that I’m not the guy to drive it; it’s just too far outside my areas of expertise. And as a WAG, it’d take 18-24 months for someone like me to bring to market – by which time screen technology may well have overtaken it.