Electronic ink is the next step in the digitization of the printed word. Pulp paper may one day be supplanted by a smarter, electronic medium. Like liquid crystal displays, the new technology uses electric currents to generate words on a page. But electronic ink can be printed on nearly any surface, freeing it from the constraints of thick, heavy glass displays.

Russ Wilcox, cofounder and vice-president of E Ink, a developer of the technology. "Print is an analog medium. The rest of the world is going digital," said Wilcox. "Paper needs a pathway. We offer that pathway."

Electronic ink displays offer the best of both worlds for display screens. E-ink displays are 30% thinner and lighter than LCDs and five times brighter and whiter, but without the glare associated with screens. They have twice the contrast ratio of LCDs, can be read from all viewing angles and use 99% less power.

Dutch electronics giant Royal Philips Electronics NV has just signed an exclusive deal to bring electronic ink to handheld devices. The firm is hoping that these features will enhance and encourage digital book reading. Ken Bronson, senior v-p of Hearst Interactive Media, an investor in Philips Electronics, agrees, describing current devices as "clunky. They essentially look and feel a lot like a PC. They're made out of plastic and glass, and they're hard to read."

Although other companies have been developing electronic ink technology, E Ink is the first one to create a product. In 1999, E Ink introduced into retail stores its Immedia displays, which are large signs whose messages can be changed by remote control.

Philips Components, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based division of Philips Electronics, is one of the prime developers of display technology, and has secured the exclusive right to sell electronic ink displays and devices in return for a $7.5-million investment. E Ink has raised over $60 million from publishing, venture capital and technology firms including the Hearst Corporation, the McClatchy Company, Motorola and Central Newspapers Inc.

Philips is currently conducting market research sessions with a selection of college students, ordinary consumers and "mobile" professionals like doctors, lawyers and sales personnel, who are comparing seven different types of handheld reading devices. The survey will be done by June, and Philips will begin applying the results to their own handheld, electronic-ink display devices. Sugata Sunyal, director of market development, said Philips devices should be ready for the consumer market by 2003.

The next step is flexible displays, and, with the development of organic and plastic transistors by Philips and Lucent, display screens will become flexible enough to fold and roll up. The company hopes to marry this technology with wireless Internet access to produce flexible, continuously updated displays. "The end concept is 'radio paper'," said Wilcox, who hopes to see it on the market by 2005.

"We're not sure what that's going to look like. It may look like a 300-page book or a broad sheet like a newspaper," said Bronson. "We're there to help E Ink figure this out."