Buoyed by Russian cash, Plastic Logic turns from U.S.

Indro Mukerjee, Plastic LogicIt’s been a turbulent few years for Plastic Logic, the embattled e-reader company, but the past few days have seen such a frenzy of activity that even the hardest-working rivals would be put to shame.

First the company announced it was changing its leadership team, bringing in a new CEO, Indro Mukerjee. Then it said it was moving its headquarters away from Mountain View, Calif., and back to Cambridge, England, where it had all started. And then, yesterday, the company announced that it was finally going to get its first real product into the market.

What is it? It’s the PL 100, a touchscreen e-reader targeted at students. For around $400, you get a device with an e-ink-style 10.7-inch capacative screen with 150 pixels per inch and 4 GB of memory, weighing in at 475 grams — lighter than an iPad or a Kindle.

Plastic Logic 100Sounds interesting, perhaps. But here’s the thing you might not be expecting: It’s being released in Russia, and only in Russia. So yes, those $400 will actually be 12,000 roubles. And even then it’s only being sold to a certain number of selected schools, for pupils in the sixth and seventh grade, since the company is pitching it really hard as an education-only device.

Sounds crazy? Well, maybe. But it’s just the latest chapter in what has been a troubled and turbulent story. Originally spun out of Cambridge University in 2000, Plastic Logic spent years developing plastic electronic displays.

Two years ago, the company was gearing up for the launch of its first product, the Que reader. But just when it seemed prepared to reach the market, it was hit by a string of blows that left it wobbling. The iPad arrived, offering a dramatically different touchscreen experience to the Que; the Kindle dropped in price, making its rival look like a very expensive piece of kit. In the end, much like HP with its Touchpad, Plastic Logic decided to put the Que out of its misery.

So after all that strife, it’s interesting to see a product finally emerge — even if most of us aren’t going to get our hands on it for some time.

But why Russia? Switching from the sunny climes of California to the cold winters of the Russian steppes may seem a little crazy, but the reasoning is easy: Plastic Logic is focusing on Russia because that’s where its investors are.

Earlier this year the company made a deal with the Russian Nanotechnology Corporation to take $700 million in funding — money that would help it pay off debts, particularly those incurred by the failure of Que — and set up a factory in Zelenograd, the Moscow suburb known as the Silicon Valley of Russia. And now, with that money as its lifeline, Plastic Logic is serving that market.

The question is whether withdrawing from the international market — the company is hinting that it may sell the PL100 elsewhere, but it’s tight-lipped on where and when — makes this more or less likely to be successful. Of course in some respects getting a product out there, anywhere, is a distinct sort of progress. But waving goodbye to the American market at the behest of your financiers seems a tricky way of keeping your head above water.

Is that a sensible move? Or just one that keeps it alive? We’ll see over the next few months.