Over the past decade or so, I’ve mused from time to time about how I’d be delighted if Apple would develop a Mac System 6-style user interface “skin” for OS X. I usually get the impression, if I get any reaction at all, that I’m not being taken seriously regarding this fancy, but I am serious. After all, the OS X Aqua and Platinum themes are shells that operate atop OS X’s UNIX underpinnings, and there would be no insurmountable technical obstacle to creating a stripped-down, low hardware overhead, and attractively minimalist GUI that looked like System 6, with Susan Kare’s wonderful, classic icon designs.
I loved the look of System 6, which was released in 1988 and succeeded by System 7 in 1991. System 6 is the version of the Mac OS that came installed on my very first Mac — a Platinum Mac Plus I bought used in 1992. I later did install System 7 on a separate partition of the Plus’s little (at least in capacity) 20 megabyte(!) external hard drive for Internet support purposes, but I also kept speedy, pretty (to my sense of aesthetics anyway) System 6.8.0 Installed on the computer’s main boot volume for speed and slickness doing production work. I don’t think any subsequent OS X version has appealed to me aesthetically as much as System 6 did, although I’ve of course appreciated the functionality advances in later versions of the Classic Max OS and OS X.
Here’s the 274 page operating manual Apple shipped with computers running System 6, in addition to a 101 page manual for the Mac itself. Those were the days!….
What sparked this reverie is my wife’s recent purchase of a Kindle e-reader — the basic, e-ink non-backlit version — not Amazon’s upscale PaperWhite or Fire models. Now, my old Mac Plus had a very bright 9-inch 512 x 342 pixel one-bit monochrome CRT display with a resolution of 72 PPI. However, the little Kindle’s greyscale user interface puts me in mind of System 6 for its spare simplicity. It’s also easy on battery charge life. Amazon says a Kindle’s battery charge can last up to one month (based on 1/2 hour reading per day) with wireless turned off
The other thing it’s easy on is your eyes– literally. Macworld UK’s Joel Mathis notes that studies show bright backlit displays reduce melatonin production, and can disrupt your sleep, making the iPad or any other backlit screen device a poor choice for doing a bit of wind-down reading for relaxation at bedtime. Personally, I find that screen-glare from my iPad, even with the brightness set at a relatively subdued level, disqualifies it as a medium for long-form reading. I can’t imagine ever reading a novel or full-length work of non-fiction on a backlit screen.
E Ink (electrophoretic ink) is a proprietary “electronic paper” technology — providing the optical component of a film used in Electronic Paper Displays (EPD) technology manufactured by E Ink Corporation, founded in 1997 and based on MIT Media Lab research. It is currently available in both grayscale and color versions. E Ink displays are also referred to as “reflective displays,” because they are illuminated by ambient light from the immediate environment.
In an LCD, or “emissive display”, light from a CFL or LED backlight is projected through the display towards your eyes. In an E Ink display, no backlight is used and available light is reflected from the surface of the display back to your eyes. As with any reflective surface, the more ambient light, the brighter the display looks, an attribute shared with traditional ink on paper media. Users of E Ink displays typically affirm that they don’t experience the same degree of eye fatigue as they do when using devices with LCD displays, especially when reading for long periods of time. A backlight can also consume up to 40% of the power used in an electronic device. Therefore, eliminating the need for a backlight significantly increases the battery life versus using a traditional LCD.
Electronic ink is made up of millions of tiny microcapsules, each about the diameter of a human hair. Each microcapsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When a positive or negative electric field is applied, corresponding particles move to the top of the microcapsule where they become visible to the user. This makes the surface appear white or black at that spot.
E Ink has obvious green benefits. E Ink Corp. claims that if we could replace all paper newspapers with eNewspapers tomorrow, it would save 95 million trees, which could remove 98 million tons
of greenhouse gas annually, citing a University of California Berkeley study showing that reading a newspaper electronically releases 32 to 140 times less CO2 and uses 27 times less water than reading the paper version. Consequently, using electronic ink devices instead of printed paper could have a dramatic effect on CO2 in the atmosphere immediately.
E Ink’s technology is commonly referred to as “bistable,” meaning that the image on an E Ink screen will be retained even when power sources are removed. In practice, this means that the display is consuming power only when something is changing. For example, when reading on an eReader, power is only needed when turning to a new page but no power is consumed by the display while you’re reading the page. This is particularly noticeable when an eReader goes into sleep mode, yet there is still an image being displayed. By contrast, with a traditional LCD, the display is needs to be refreshed around 30X per second, regardless of the whether anything new is being displayed or not. Bistability significantly reduces the power consumption of displays using E Ink and is a key reason eReaders have such long battery life. On average, A 12” LCD-equipped device uses, in 20 hours, the equivalent of 36 AA batteries, while an E Ink 12-inch display uses just one battery’s worth. What this means is that the power supply for an E Ink equipped device can weigh a few ounces as opposed to a few pounds when it comes to its equivalent LCD counterpart.
At CES in January 2013, E Ink Corp. announced that the next generation of E Ink devices will feature 1024 x768 resolution on 6-inch displays, with 212 ppi Pixel density. That’s the same resolution as the iPad 2 and iPad mini, but a higher density due to the smaller dimensions of a 6-inch screen. Not Retina Display res. by any means, but perfectly usable. I’m drafting this column on an iPad 2 right now.
My wife really likes her little Kindle, and was unenthusiastic about getting an iPad, which is what I first suggested (for general computing as well as reading). However, for now at least she’s still content with her hand-me-down 17-Inch PowerBook for email and Web work, and the Kindle for reading. I still have too many real books on my get-to reading list to even seriously consider reading an e-version off an electronic screen, and my daily newspaper and several magazine subscriptions are all hard-copy as yet, even though I’ve had my iPad for nearly two years. I suppose the time will come, and I hope E Ink devices are still around when it does.
Looking ahead, E Ink has developed technology based on a polyimide plastic TFT backplane whereby lighter display and more rugged flexible TFT displays can be manufactured, making E Ink more like real paper than ever. Plastic TFT can be augmented by a layer of unbreakable glass on the front of the display to provide stiffness to a device that requires significant touch interaction, but still retaining the advantage of enhanced ruggedness.
In the meantime, have no idea whether it would be technically possible. I’m guessing that the two screen technologies are too radically different to ever be accommodated simultaneously in a single device. But I still think it would be great if an iPad model with E Ink were available in addition to the backlit versions. One can always dream.