On Monday a disreputable source reported that Pixel Qi was “officially out of business”, but according to my new contact with the company that is not the case. Late Tuesday night I got an email from Dougald Turnbull, the Pixel Qi VP of Finance and Operations, who clarified the situation. The company is not dead (well, not yet), the products aren’t dead, and the IP is very much alive.
Turnbull confirmed initial reports that the Pixel Qi screens are still in production, and that Chungwa Picture Tubes was still a licensed manufacturer. He also confirmed my report that Tripuso was a licensed distributor (so is ) and that the screen tech will continue to be available.
In fact, the tech could become even more widely available – just not from Pixel Qi.
I’ve been told (and I can confirm) that the Pixel Qi IP is now in the possession of a major stockholder, and here’s where things get surreal.
John Gilmore, activist, philanthropist, and founder of the EFF, now owns the Pixel Qi patents, and he’s reportedly released the patents under the Defensive Patent License.
Described as the patent license equivalent of the GPL, the Defensive Patent License makes all patents licensed under it free to all participating parties, with the double caveat that they can’t use the patents to sue and that they must license their patents under the DPL as well.
In short, the Pixel Qi tech can be used by any screen tech manufacturer which cares to sign up for the DPL, which means that we could see some of the ideas in Pixel Qi’s screen tech (low power, sunlight readable, etc) show up in commercially produced LCD screens.
With luck we could see screens like this from the major screen makers:
That would be a far different fate from the usual outcome when a tech company fails; in most cases the IP ends up in the hands of a creditor or investor, or possibly tied up in litigation, and in some cases a patent troll such as Intellectual Ventures gains control (sometimes they’re the highest bidder).
For example, the Dutch screen tech company IRX went bankrupt last year and its IP is still under the control of the court-appointed administrator. And in 2013 Wistron folded up Polymer Vision, the screen tech company it acquired out of bankruptcy a few years before, and then simply sat on the IP.
Admittedly, the Pixel Qi outcome is far from ideal, but with the products still in production and with the tech available for license, Pixel Qi is far close to being alive than dead.
I would not count them out just yet. Who knows, the company itself might revive and start developing new ideas again. With several key individuals, including the founder Mary Lou Jepsen gone (she’s at Google now), that is’t very likely, but it’s not impossible.
And given the tech in question, I do hope someone continues development. Pixel Qi was known for its low-power transflective LCD screen tech which offered a unique solution to the battery issue. When viewed in full color mode, it offered an adequate viewing experience with either the frontlight on or off. The Pixel Qi screens also offered a low-power grayscale mode which was fully visible in sunlight.
The screen tech was originally developed for the OLPC educational laptop initiative, and was spun off into an independent company in order to push research and commercial development. Pixel Qi has released several generations of screens in 7″ and 10″ screen sizes which have been used in a variety of tablets, laptops, rugged devices, and even a couple USB monitors (see Sol Computer for several examples).
At one point the tech was described as an E-ink killer. Alas, that proved to be wildly optimistic, but I was equally hopeful at that time.