Ebooks: The Tech Behind the Text

E-reader with Print Book

Like many other modern media formats, the technology behind ebooks is developing quickly and constantly, with new advancements coming with every release of new e-readers.  What may seem like straightforward text display technology is actually becoming highly refined and purpose built as new features developed specifically for ebooks are making the electronic reading experience more comfortable and intuitive.  Advancements in e-reader displays, file formats, and user interfaces continue to push the technology behind ebooks.  Focusing on the Amazon Kindle, this post describes the deep technology of ebooks…the “tech behind the text.”


The Amazon Kindle contains a refined user interface that allows for easy customization and navigation when reading an ebooks. Basic navigation including

Amazon Kindle Interface, with page buttons and full keyboard

selecting text is controlled by direction pad, while page turning is activated by two buttons located on the sides of the e-reader.  The Kindle also contains a full keypad and buttons for web browsing.

Another popular ebook reader is the Apple iPad. Unlike the Kindle, the iPad relies completely on a touch screen user interface.  Such touch screens detect the exact location of a user’s finger by reading changes in electrical charge, and carry out the corresponding command.  Apple’s Multitouch screen allows readers to scroll, navigate, highlight text, enlarge images, and perform virtually any other function without the use of buttons.

“It’d be very easy to add a touch-screen…We don’t want to compromise the reading experience. Today’s capacitive touch-screen technology is an extra layer on top of the display surface, and it increases glare.” –Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, on why the Kindle does not incorporate a touch screeen.

File Formats and Management

An increased variety of compatible file formats has made ebooks available on more devices with more conversion options.  Many e-readers use a proprietary file format (ex. Amazon’s .AZW extension) which allow for the inclusion of digital rights management, or DRM to restrict illegal file sharing.  The ability to convert files such as .PDF, .doc, .txt., and .html into e-reader compatible files makes purchasing and using ebooks much more convenient and simple.

Some ebook services also rely on cloud computing to store and deliver ebooks to consumers.  Amazon’s Kindle stores purchased ebooks on a cloud so that consumers can always access ebooks that they have paid for, regardless of whether the file is still on their personal device.


E-readers such as the Amazon Kindle have traditionally relied on LCD, or liquid crystal

LCD Diagram

displays.  Liquid crystals react readily to electrical current, manipulating the passage of light though them.  The reflected light passing through a charged crystal goes through two polarized panels and onto a glass display.  This allows the liquid crystals to be controlled to display any type of visual media including images and video.  The issue with using LCD displays on e-readers is that many complain that it can be difficult to read text on them and that over a long reading session the eyes can become uncomfortably strained.  This spurred the development of “electronic ink” technology.

E-ink was developed to create a more paper-like appearance for e-reader displays.  E-ink uses microcapsules that contain white (positively charged) and black (negatively charged) particles which, when positively or negatively charged by electrons, push the corresponding color to the top of the microcapsule.  The result is a display of the text

E-ink Microcapsules

and images of an ebook file.  E-ink has a look very similar to physical ink on paper, and is more comfortable to read.  Amazon’s newest Kindle as well as one of its competitors, Sony’s “Reader” use e-ink technology.  One limitation of e-ink is that it is currently not able to be backlit, so readers will have to use an external light source to read in low light environments.

“As the electronic reading market continues to expand, there are more opportunities for expansion not only in the eBook space, but also for eNewspapers, eMagazines and eTextbooks.” –Felix Ho Chairman of E Ink

Ebook technology has advanced rapidly in just the past few years, making ebooks more widely available and more easily used by consumers.  Better displays, more compatible formats, and more intuitive interfaces are making the ebook experience better and better.  As ebooks grow in popularity, I am interested in seeing how many print book readers make the switch to digital reading with the introduction of new features.  Check in later for my next ebook related blog on the future of ebooks and their potential growth as a literature consumption media.










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One Response to Ebooks: The Tech Behind the Text

  1. thomas haines says:

    Good info – interesting topic. Would have liked to read a bit more on the technology end.

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