Is Google building an eReader? Readying ad-supported books?

The Kindle might be getting a brand new eReader rival.

It seems that Google has bought out a company called eBook Technologies Incorporated. The acquisition is notable for a few reasons -

  1. ETI has two LCD based eReaders and 1 eInk based eReader – the latter looked surprisingly like the BeBook. This might mean that Google is looking at building an eReader. It makes sense to build on one of ETI’s eReaders, instead of starting from scratch.
  2. ETI has 8 very important eReader patents including ones covering advertising in books and secure ebook delivery. These were mostly granted on December 16th, 2010. This might mean that Google already has an eReader ready, and just wants to protect itself from patent lawsuits. Given that Amazon and B&N already have several patents, and that companies like Discovery Communications also have eReader related patents, it makes sense to buy a portfolio of patents that would keep a Google eReader safe from patent lawsuits.
  3. ETI has technology for an eBook platform which includes an ebook publishing and distribution system. This is something Google would definitely need if it were to get into eReaders. In fact, it would need this even if it sticks with just ebooks.

Here are some links of interest -

  1. Cache site for the ETI-Proto – ETI’s 6″ eInk eReader
  2. Cache site for ETI Product Overview – ETI’s eReaders, Online Bookshelf, eBookstore, and Tools
  3. TechCrunch’s Coverage – Some intelligent comments on a rather amateurish post.

However, the real question is – Why did Google buy eBook Technologies Incorporated?

Is Google Building an eReader? Will it build on top of ETI-Proto?

The first possibility is that Google decided that instead of spending $1 billion on B&N’s Nook division, or Sony’s Sony Reader division, it makes more sense to spend $50 million on a smaller company like ETI or Cool-er.

Then it could take the devices ETI has, pick one or more, and build a Google eReader using the technology. As a nice bonus, it gets a bunch of eReader patents that ensure it can release the new Google Reader without any problems.

Will Google go with an eInk eReader or a LCD eReader?

Here are the three ETI eReaders Google could build on (please note that most of this information is from 2007, and is thus pretty outdated) -

  1. ETI-Proto. It has a 6″ eInk screen, a single button, and seems to be a BeBook clone.
  2. ETI-1. It has a back-lit, 8.2 inch, 16 bit color LCD touchscreen with VGA resolution. It has brightness and contrast controls. It also has an internal 56K modem, an ethernet port,  a memory card slot, a Motorola processor, and a stylus.
  3. ETI-2. It has a back-lit, 5.5 inch, 4-bit grayscale LCD touch screen with half-VGA resolution. It has page turn buttons on the front left side. It has an internal 33.6K modem, a USB slot, a stylus, and a Cirrus Logic processor.

It seems ETI had an entire range of eReaders – eInk, grayscale LCD, color LCD. The eReaders also seem pretty decent given these specifications are from 2007.

Given that it’s Google, it’s likely that it will use this technology to build a reading tablet, and not an eReader.

How likely is it that Google is building an eReader or a Reading Tablet?

Very likely.

Google built a phone secretly. Then it built a netbook/laptop secretly. There’s little doubt it’ll build an eReader sooner or later. It has search traffic, it has books, it has public domain books, it has an ebook store, it has cloud infrastructure – the only thing missing is an eReader.

In fact, it’s quite possible that Google has an eReader almost ready - that it’s buying ETI simply for eReader patents.

Is Google buying patents to protect an almost-ready Google eReader? To sell advertising supported books ?

Let’s take a look at the impressive eReader patents ETI has. Thanks to Dave at TechCrunch for the clues.

Patent for advertising in Books

[Advertising in Books] System and Method for providing Sub-Publication Content in an Electronic Device – A patent about showing ‘master content’ and then showing sub-content that might be a book review, news, sports news, classifieds, book-related, and so forth. It includes advertisements as sub-content. This might be the BIG patent. Amazon has a patent for in-book advertising. Now Google just got a patent for in-book advertising.

You can also read the entire eReader patent.

Patent for Secure eBook delivery and offline eBook shopping

From the Management page at ETI’s website we get this -

 John is co-inventor and patent holder of a system to provide secure electronic book delivery. He is also a co-inventor of a patent-pending system to provide offline catalog shopping on an electronic book.

Those are two very important patents. Can’t find the patent numbers. Please do leave a comment if you can find them.

Flexible Electronic Device

Update: This is actually Skiff.

Patent Application Number – 20100315399. This is a patent that covers a flexible electronic device and a method of manufacture. This patent specifically quotes the Kindle and Plastic Logic’s Que -

In many cases, electronic devices have replaced traditional, non-electronic devices.

For example, for many, electronic reading devices have replaced traditional paper books. An example of such a device is Amazon’s Kindle wireless reading device, which allows a user to download an electronic book, and then read that book using the device. Another example of a similar product is the Plastic Logic Reader. These devices, while providing functionality for the user, still resemble small, inflexible computers.

It’s interesting that Skiff has patents for a flexible eReader. Thought that News Corp had closed it down. This might be a pretty valuable patent. Skiff has at least two more eReader related patents -

  1. [This is Skiff] Electronic Display Controller – System for controlling an electronic display, such as an electrophoretic display.
  2. [This is Skiff] System and Method for Providing Spatial and Temporal Content in an Electronic Device. Includes Advertising which makes it a hugely important patent.

It’d be worth investigating what other patents Skiff has. Perhaps in a later post.

Additional Patents

ETI also holds a few additional patents -

  1. Electronic Paper Display Whitespace Utilization – A patent about how ePaper content formatting is presented. It literally talks about figuring out how best to display content on an eReader, and which content to display, given a certain amount of available space left. It’s a bit ridiculous there’s a patent for how words are shown on a page.
  2. System and Method for delivering Publication Content to Reader Devices using Mixed Mode Transmission – A patent that talks about multi-casting content to multiple eReaders. It also talks about using mixed mode transmission.

It’s interesting that nearly all of ETI’s patents mention devices using electronic paper displays. Why would it focus so much on eInk when it had just 1 eInk based eReader?

Is Google buying ETI’s Platform and Distribution Technology?

After looking at the patents ETI has, this possibility seems really unlikely. However, let’s see if there’s something worth acquiring.

ETI has a platform consisting of four parts -

  1. eReaders. Which we’ve looked at above.
  2. Online Bookshelf. This is ETI’s equivalent of WhisperNet/the Cloud. They talk about ‘the ability to purchase and access ebooks anywhere, and at any time’ – which sounds identical to the Kindle’s ‘Buy a Book Once. Read it Everywhere’ sales pitch.
  3. eBookstore. The equivalent of Kindle Store. ETI mentions relationships with over 24 major publishers. It also talks about accessing the store through an eReader, a browser, an offline catalog, or through an alternate web retailer.
  4. Content Conversion and Publication Tools. Apparently, ETI’s founders were founding members of the International Digital Publishing Forum, which created ePub. ETI has a tool, eBook Publisher, which converts books into ePub format. It can process text, ePub, OEBPS, Html, Word, and Powerpoint files. ETI also has a tool, Auto Publisher, which performs pagination, compression, and encryption of ebooks.

It’s clear that ETI’s platform, and its distribution technology and tools, might be pretty valuable too. ETI’s President is on the IPDF board and helps set direction for ePub – which definitely helps since ‘openness’ and ePub are going to be used as weapons in the eReader Wars.

Is Google buying itself an eReader Development Team?

ETI’s management team -

  1. John Rivlin, CEO, was the VP of Software Systems at Softbook Press. SoftBook Press released one of the first eReaders in 1998 – the SoftBook. This company was acquired by GemStar, and he was then responsible for design, development, and operations of the Gemstar eBook server platform.
  2. Garth Conboy, President, was the VP of Software Engineering at Softbook Press. At Gemstar he was the GM for the Gemstar eBook Group which was a combination of SoftBook Press and the company behind the RocketBook.

More details at the cached page for ETI’s Management Team.

By acquiring ETI Inc. Google instantly gets some of the people with the most experience in eReaders and eBooks.

Closing Thoughts

Google acquired – eReader technology, some extremely valuable patents, a distribution system and platform, two people who know an awful lot about eReaders. It’s a pretty good acquisition.

There are two very likely consequences – a Google eReader will arrive in 2011, Google will try advertising-supported books in 2011 or early 2012.

11 Responses

  1. i can say without hesitation that i will never read a book with ads in it. you couldnt PAY me to read a book with ads in it.

  2. Re: Patent
    Here, I think, is a link for the first patent:
    http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-bool.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&co1=AND&d=PTXT&s1=%22Rivlin,+John%22.INNM.&OS=IN/“Rivlin,+John”&RS=IN/”Rivlin,+John”
    Patent number is: 7,437,318

    The second is supposedly a pending patent. I do not see one listed. It may not have reached the publication date – 18 months after filing.

  3. Ads have been in ebooks in the past.
    If the ad supported books are free or 99 cents than I have no problem sort of like free or cheap TV or free web content.

  4. One thing for sure–Google’s entry will shift the ebook revolution into a yet higher gear. That revolution will become the talk of the town in a few months–and continue for years.

  5. PS: Here’s what I posted yesterday, before this news came out:

    “Another reason for the paucity of eReaders this year: maybe the word is out among insiders that Google has signed with someone, or is making its own EBR, which would further reduce the free space for any independent vendor.”

  6. Their eink ereader is not a BeBook. It’s a Netronix EB600 OEM.
    I don’t think Google needs to buy a small firm to stamp stickers on Chinese OEMs.

    • Thanks for the update. What I think or what you think is pretty much immaterial.

    • “I don’t think Google needs to buy a small firm to stamp stickers on Chinese OEMs.”

      We’re not at the point yet where EBRs are a commodity, like PCs. One can’t just get ready-to-go EBRs off the shelf. If Google wants to enter a developing market like this, it would make sense to acquire a talented and experienced design team, even if it only gets them up to speed six months earlier. Time is of the essence.

  7. [...] of the eCash from the eBooks eRevolution. On the other hand, if iReaderReview.com is right in THIS ARTICLE, then it’ll be a piece of equipment possibly serving-​​up adverts as part of the book to [...]

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