Watch Amazon closely in the next few months. If anyone can pressure Apple in devices that change the way we do things, it's Amazon.
Here is a company that began as a bookseller and morphed into an all-around Internet retailer with huge clout, not to mention its growing presence in "cloud" computing, where data and applications are stored on third-party servers and accessed over the Net. Then came Kindle, but watch what's next.
There will be new Amazon devices, most likely this year, and they won't necessarily be Kindles. Make no mistake, the company from the top down insists that there will always be a Kindle, meaning an inexpensive reading device that does only one thing and does it well.
But Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also would like to take a piece of Apple's action with a tablet of his own. Magazines and newspapers, after all, are more accessible - and certainly more true to their paper counterparts - on a tablet like the iPad. Just check the iPad's New Yorker app to see how a magazine can be represented with fidelity and innovation on a tablet device.
But competing head to head with the iPad is not necessarily a winning proposition if your intent is just to bring out another device with a glare-ridden LCD screen. The rumors continue to fly - and Bezos has certainly accelerated them in the past few days by hinting about an Amazon tablet - but the longer the company puts off its tablet entry, the more likely it is going to try to upstage the iPad.
The way to do that is with a new kind of screen, and the one I'm thinking about is from Qualcomm, which has created the highly attractive Mirasol technology.
What you get with Mirasol is a screen that, like the Kindle, uses ambient light rather than backlighting, easing the eyestrain of reading a bright LCD device. Like the Kindle, the Mirasol display consumes little power as long as the image stays unchanged. Imagine a color screen that you can read in direct sunlight, unlike the iPad's. As for reading in low light, Qualcomm has just shown off an ambient light sensor that brightens the screen in dim conditions.
Qualcomm has been showing off versions of Mirasol for months now, recently folding in not just color but video playback. This is not just another version of electronic ink, but a display that usestiny mirrors - or microelectronic machines - to create the image. An Amazon tablet offering the advantages of both a Kindle and a tablet could well be a game-changer. Barnes & Noble knows this as well, and may have Mirasol plans for its tablet upgrade.
There are other possible technologies, including Pixel Qi, from a small company in San Bruno, Calif., that can tap so-called transflective mode, which allows the use of lower backlight settings than normal LCD screens, and the screen can also be operated in reflective mode, meaning the device then needs only ambient light.
We'll see various devices coming out with this technology in 2011, but my hunch is that Amazon is going to want to hit hard with the most innovative screen possible, and on that score Qualcomm Mirasol gets the nod.
This kind of screen technology can work either with tablets or dedicated e-book readers, which is why using them falls directly into Amazon's wheelhouse.
I'd be willing to bet that the Amazon tablets we'll see either by late summer or the holiday season will use Mirasol.
And if Amazon, does decide to get into the market fast with an LCD screen, my hunch is that this model will quickly be supplanted by a Mirasol model early in 2012. I see little attraction in marketing a tablet that simply mimics the iPad and other tablet offerings like Motorola's Xoom. If I'm right, Amazon goes to the head of the pack in terms of trendy new technology. We'll know within a few months.
Paul A. Gilster, the author of several books on technology, lives in Raleigh. Reach him at email@example.com.