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The Wright Brothers were inspired by watching birds fly. Qualcomm (QCOM) CEO Paul Jacobs is modeling his new technology on butterfly wings. Qualcomm has developed a screen for digital devices that uses ambient light to make images visible, instead of the backlighting built into most laptops and Apple's (AAPL) iPad. That means the Mirasol, as the screen is called, eats up very little battery power and is usable even in full sunshine. Unlike the screen in Amazon's (AMZN) Kindle, which also relies on ambient light, the Mirasol features full color and can show video.
The so-called reflective displays use an array of microscopic mirrors to exploit an optical phenomenon called iridescence. When light passes through a transparent, multilayered surface, the reflections compound and intensify colors. Peacock feathers and the interiors of pearl oysters are examples of naturally occurring iridescence, but the phenomenon is most pronounced in butterflies.
Jacobs says that this fall at least one manufacturer, which he declined to name, will ship e-readers using Mirasol displays. The timing could be fortuitous. Yankee Group forecasts sales of e-readers to more than triple, to 19 million, by 2013. Dell (DELL), HTC, and other companies have announced plans to introduce full-color devices later this year to grab a piece of that market. Amazon declined to comment on its plans.
So far Mirasol displays come only in a 5.7-inch version. That's bigger than an iPhone but smaller than an iPad or Kindle DX, both of which are 9.7 inches. Qualcomm's year-old factory in Taiwan cannot yet handle larger sizes.
Mirasol screens may be a good fit for devices targeted at customers who don't want to pay the $499 price tag for the entry-level iPad but want more than what the monochrome Kindle can offer. "If you just want to read books and get occasional multimedia," says J. Gerry Purdy of researcher MobileTrax, "Mirasol is going to be in the hunt as the best display technology."