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three ETI eReaders Google could build on (please note that most of this information is from 2007, and is thus pretty outdated) –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

Why are eReaders no longer the flavor of the month?

The Kindle is rumored to have sold 8 million units in 2010. You’d think that would make every company on Earth want to manufacture eReaders. Strangely, if CES 2011 is any indicator, most companies seem to have given up on eReaders.

Decline of interest in making eReaders – CES 2010 vs CES 2011

Here’s a post reviewing the eReaders of CES 2010. Here are some of the eReaders shown off last January (with updates on their status in 2011 included) –

  1. Mirasol. Mirasol is the star eReader at CES 2011 – just as it was the star eReader at CES 2010. The first Mirasol device is rumored to be the PocketBook Mirasol and it’s set to debut in Q3, 2011. Note that Mirasol powered eReaders were supposed to launch in 2010 itself – so that Q3, 2011 date isn’t a given.
  2. BeBook with Liquavista Color Display. No mention of it now. 
  3. PixelQi. Notion Ink’s Adam tablet with Pixel Qi display is available – It’s a Tablet rather than an eReader. No other devices with Pixel Qi at CES 2011.
  4. Alex Reader. Arrived and was rather good – didn’t make much impact. 
  5. Entouradge Edge. Arrived and was good but very expensive. Didn’t have much impact.
  6. Copia. Released a social platform instead of an eReader.
  7. MSI Dual Screen eReader. No idea what happened to this.
  8. Cool-er. Bankrupt now.
  9. Bookeen Orizon. No idea what happened to this.
  10. Samsung E6 Reader. This is set to release in the US soon.
  11. Aiptek Story Book.
  12. Fujitsu. Still only in Japan.
  13. Skiff. Closed down.
  14. 20 other generic readers. Most didn’t arrive.
  15. Acer and Asus had plans for eReaders. Morphed into Tablet Plans. Acer does have one eReader+eWriter set to launch in summer of 2011.

CES 2010 was all about eReaders. More importantly, it was about new companies jumping into the eReader market.

Contrast that with CES 2011 –

  1. Hanvon’s color eReader which won’t be released in the US.
  2. The two CES 2010 stars – Mirasol and Pixel Qi.
  3. iRiver’s Story HD.
  4. A few more. Just a few.

From 40 to 50 new eReaders at CES 2010, we’ve gone down to 10 or so at CES 2011. We have almost no new companies trying to release eReaders. Tablets have replaced eReaders as the flavor of the month.

Why has there been such a sharp decline in interest in making eReaders?

For all intents and purposes eReaders are doing great –

  1. Amazon has definitely sold millions of eReaders. It might have sold as many as 8 million eReaders in 2010.
  2. B&N is selling half a million Nook Color reading tablets a month.
  3. B&N has sold millions of Nooks.
  4. Every eBook store and app is talking about ‘millions’ of sales and ‘millions’ of customers.
  5. eBooks are 10% of the market now.

You have to wonder why there were 50 companies jumping into eReaders in January 2010, when just ‘millions’ of eReaders had been sold, and now there are close to zero companies jumping in – even though 10 million or more ereaders have been sold.

Why is everyone shunning the eReader market?

Here are possible reasons –

  1. Companies believe Tablets will kill eReaders.
  2. Companies feel Tablets are a much bigger market than eReaders – that Tablets could become as big as laptops, while eReaders will always be a 10-15 million eReaders sold a year market.
  3. There are not that many companies excited about eReaders – They find tablets more interesting.
  4. With Tablets, companies see an opportunity to compete on price. iPad at $499 means a lot of opportunity for lower priced tablets.
  5. Companies feel Amazon has wrapped up the market. That there’s a small 10 million eReaders a year market, and Amazon has most of it.
  6. They feel the major markets are US and UK, and those are very difficult to get into. With Tablets they feel there is more of an international market.
  7. Companies don’t feel they can compete with the trifecta of Kindle, Kindle Store, and Free WhisperNet.
  8. Companies don’t want to deal with Publishers. Can’t really blame them.
  9. Companies get a free Operating System they can use with their tablets – the ‘optimized for Tablets’ Android Honeycomb. Even more of an opportunity to cut prices. Note that there is no version of Android optimized for eReaders.

Whatever the reason, it’s pretty clear that companies have moved on from eReaders, and are fully focused on tablets in 2011.

Comparative sizes of eReader and Tablet markets

Apple supposedly sold 10 to 12 million Tablets in 2010. There weren’t really any other Tablets in the market.

Sales of 10 million or so iPads in 2010 might mean a lot of different things –

  1. That Apple got most of the market, and the actual market is 15 million Tablets sold a year.
  2. That Apple could barely produce enough to meet demand (as is claimed), and the actual market is 30 million tablets a year.
  3. 10 million iPads sold is just the tip of the iceberg, and the Tablet market is actually 100 million tablets a year.

Companies jumping into the Tablet market seem to believe one of the latter two possibilities.

In the eReader market, Amazon supposedly sold 5 to 8 million Kindles. B&N and Sony sold a million or more eReaders each. B&N sold a million reading tablets. Other eReader makers probably sold 1 or 2 million eReaders.

What might ’10 million eReaders sold in 2010′ mean?

  1. That the eReader market is already stable, and will stay at around 10 million eReaders sold per year.
  2. That the eReader market jumped from 4 million eReaders sold in 2009, to 10 million eReaders sold in 2010. That it will continue to boom, and will reach 20 to 30 million eReaders sold per year before it stabilizes.
  3. That 2010 eReader sales are just the tip of the iceberg, and that the eventual market will be one hundred million eReaders sold per year.

Most companies seem to believe the first possibility. Perhaps they believe 2. but feel they have no chance.

So, for some indecipherable reason, every company dabbling in eReaders has either assumed that eReaders will stop growing, or it has assumed that Amazon and B&N are unbeatable.

That seems rather defeatist.

It makes very little sense – In a year when every eReader company is claiming record sales, all other companies are running away from the eReader market, instead of towards it.

Top 5 eReader events of 2011 (candidates)

The Kindle, the Nook, and all of us await what 2011 might bring.

2010 was a very interesting year. We had a lot of interesting eReader related events – CES 2010 was full of eReaders, we had the advent of $150 eReaders, the iPad arrived, Kindle DX 2 arrived, we got Nook WiFi, we had Kindle WiFi and Kindle 3, the Nook color was released, Sony brought touch to eReaders.

2011 promises to be just as interesting. Let’s look at the eReader events and happenings that are candidates to be the Top 5 eReader events of 2011.

Things left unfinished

There are a lot of things left over from 2010 –

  1. Arrival of color eReaders. eInk, Qualcomm, and Pixel Qi all promised or hinted at color eReaders in 2010. In 2011 they get to deliver on their unfulfilled promises.
  2. iPad 2 to destroy eReaders. Lots of people thought iPad would kill eReaders. Steve Jobs gets to try to get that done in 2011 with iPad 2. We all know this is rather unlikely – still, it’s fun to let non-readers, who hardly ever buy books, remain delusional and believe they are going to determine the future of books and reading.
  3. Google to deliver the most dangerous Kindle competitor. Google eBooks has a lot of potential but it seems rushed – In 2011 Google should have enough time to deliver a full solution.
  4. Sony Reader finally adds wireless support? Sony refuses to add wireless support to its Pocket and Touch models. In 2011 we might finally see it change its mind. Kobo took 5-6 months to realize lack of wireless was a deal breaker – Why can’t Sony see this after 3+ years?
  5. Plastic Logic to release Que. Plastic Logic delayed its Que proReader after the iPad was launched. In 2011 it should have something out, and we’ll find out if there’s a market for ‘business eReaders’.

A lot of the biggest events of 2011 might be the outcome of things started in 2009 and 2010.

The Reading Tablet Wars

Nook Color has carved out a new market. It’s also managed to capture the dual crowns of best Android tablet and best Tablet under $400.

A few of the top events of 2011 might be events related to the Reading Tablet Wars –

  1. Release of a Kindle Reading Tablet.
  2. Release of Nook Color 2.
  3. Nook Color becoming a major force and hitting the 5 million units sold mark.

The Nook Color and other Reading Tablets will have a major impact in 2011. People still don’t realize that a lot of what they really love about dedicated eReaders is the dedication to readers. A reading tablet that is dedicated to readers and reading will have a lot more impact than people realize.

New eReaders and Color eReaders

This ties in with the ‘Unfinished Business of 2010’ list.

  1. We will see a color screen PocketBook eReader powered by Qualcomm Mirasol in Q3, 2011.
  2. We will find out which company was the motivation for Qualcomm’s $2 billion investment in Mirasol production facilities.
  3. We’ll see Hanvon release their color eReader. Perhaps even in the US.
  4. We might see a Color Kindle.
  5. One out of Sony Reader and Nook might take a gamble on a color screen eReader.

We also have eReaders we don’t know about yet – a possible GReader, Pixel Qi powered tablets sold as eReaders, perhaps a dedicated reading device from Apple (actually, it’s rather unlikely). Kobo is likely to release a new Kobo Reader.

There are also a few new eReaders being shown off at CES 2011, including the iRiver Story HD which has 1024 by 800 screen resolution.

Kindle 4 and Nook 2 and Sony Reader 675

The Big 3 eReaders of 2009 and 2010 (Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader) are all likely to see new versions released this year –

  1. Kindle 4 might be an improved Kindle with a color screen or a touch screen.
  2. Nook 2 has to compete against Kindle 3 – you have to wonder what surprises it might spring.
  3. Sony Readers have consistently been the best reading devices. They have also been consistently let down by poor infrastructure and by a terrible ebook store. Will 2011 be different?

Nook 2 is the biggest release here – It sets the tone for Kindle vs Nook for all of 2011. Nook Color is gorgeous, but it’s in a different segment – B&N really, really needs a solid Nook 2 to compete effectively in the dedicated eReader space.

The new Sony Reader releases are important – especially if Sony ties up with Google, and lets the ‘Do No Evil’ Empire provide infrastructure and ebooks.

Could Kobo produce a couple of the most significant events of 2011?

Kobo is threatening on multiple fronts. If it manages to release a killer eReader it might end up with an eReader+Store combo that’s as good as Kindle.

Could Kobo produce something exquisite in 2011?

eReader Wars of 2011 – Strategy Wars

There’s a lot that might happen in terms of strategy –

  1. A Tablet might convince people it’s an eReader.
  2. Reading tablets might overtake dedicated eReaders.
  3. Perhaps we see $100 eReaders and $75 eReaders.
  4. There might be a real Kindle DX competitor.
  5. Perhaps eReaders make serious headway in education.
  6. 2011 might be the year we get eReaders that are subsidized by a subscription plan or a contract of some sort.
  7. We might see a great eReader feature that massively increases adoption.
  8. An eReader+eWriter combination like the Asus Memo might start stealing eReader market share.
  9. Advertising supported books might arrive.

There will be a lot of new strategies implemented in the eReader market this year. A couple of them might prove to be the decisive events of 2011.

Will the Kindle App Store and the Nook App Store take off?

Kindle Apps for Kindles. Nook Apps for the Nook Color.

What impact might they have? Will we see any true killer eReader apps?

Apps that make eReaders even more of a value proposition. Apps that make more people choose an eReader over a Tablet. Apps that make more people buy an eReader.

This is a wildcard. No one knows what apps we might see, or what impact those apps might have. We just know that there’s a lot of potential here.

Could there be developments that take eReaders in a completely different direction?

What if there’s an eReader released that changes the direction eReaders are evolving in – an eReader for kids, an education-focused eReader, an eReader that replaces both the reading and writing aspects of paper.

There is a chance that something is released in 2011 which proves to be a lot more meaningful than color or touch. A development as important as eInk and wireless delivery of books.

There’s a slight chance Nook Color is exactly such a development. We’ll find out this year.

My prediction for Top 5 eReader events of 2011

Here are the 5 things likely to cause the most impact –

  1. Kindle Reading Tablet. If this is released, and it looks increasingly likely, it’ll be huge.
  2. Google and Sony teaming up. It’s possible, and if it happens it’ll instantly make the Go-ony combination the #2 eReader+eBook solution.
  3. $100 and cheaper eReaders. At $100 people start buying for the love of buying – especially if Amazon and B&N learn from Kobo, and start bundling in 1,000 free public domain books. Public domain books that make people feel they instantly got their money’s worth.
  4. Nook Color. The significance of the Nook Color isn’t clear yet. The key turning point would be people realizing what the Nook Color is capable of, and the outcome would be Reading Tablets becoming a tens of millions of units a year market.
  5. One out of Kindle App Store and Nook App Store taking off. The 1-year head-start of the Kindle App Store versus the army of Android developers the Nook App Store can tap into. One of these is going to result in killer apps, which in turn would have a huge impact on the adoption rate of eReaders and Reading Tablets.

The wild cards are Nook 2, the new Kobo reader, and possibly a strategy shift that throws off everyone – It’s likely to be a subscription/subsidy based eReader. It’ll be a strategy shift that changes how eReaders are sold.

Google is another wildcard. It’s just that it’s so scattered in its focus – Will it be interested in the unsexy world of providing great ebook and eReader services, or will it prefer to make cars that drive themselves?

There are a few events that will get a lot of hype. Here are my reasons why they aren’t very significant –

  1. Arrival of the iPad 2. Well, since iPad completely destroyed eReaders – to the point that only 10 million or so eReaders were sold in 2010 – we know that iPad 2 couldn’t possibly have any impact. After all, eReaders are already dead and buried.
  2. Release of Color eReaders. Firstly, it’s been a year since they were announced, and 6 months since they were supposed to arrive. They are still being announced, and now are being promised for Q3, 2011. They might not arrive, and they might be released by the wrong companies – companies other than Amazon and B&N. Unless Amazon releases a color Kindle 4, or B&N releases a color Nook 2, we won’t see color eReaders do much.
  3. The new Sony Readers. If Sony doesn’t partner with Google it just doesn’t have the store or infrastructure to provide a great experience.
  4. eReaders + eWriters. The current solutions are based on touchscreens and styluses and are tacky. The real way to do this is with keyboards and software – usable keyboards and really excellent software.
  5. New eReaders. The battle is being fought by ecosystems and pure eReaders will have an incredibly tough time. To win, or to do well, a company has to provide an eReader, a store, and infrastructure – It’s very, very tough to get all three right.

There’s a pretty big disconnect. People who don’t read books think that color screens and the iPad 2 and being able to do more than just read are the real events that will shape the future of books. The truth is that it’s going to be remarkably boring things that shape the future of eReaders – providing more value for money, releasing a device that is EVEN BETTER for reading books, replacing paper, eReader apps, tablets that are focused on reading, expanding to reading of all types.