Google Nabs an Ebook Reader Company; Will this Be the SpeedBook?

Last Updated Jan 14, 2011 4:23 PM EST

Google (GOOG) made its first acquisition of the season: eBook Technologies, Inc. (ETI). The company has already pulled down most aspects of its web site other than the notice of the acquisition, but cached copies of its web pages, combined with the trademark Google filed for last August on the name SpeedBook, suggest that either some kind of device may be in the works or, perhaps, a reference design with specialized software

According to Web page caches from 2008 still available on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, ETI had four lines of business:

  • ebook readers
  • an online bookshelf sales and distribution system
  • an ebook ecommerce site
  • content conversion and publication tools
You can pretty much rule out the distribution system and ecommerce site. Google has a far bigger name and already knows how to charge for and distribute electronic content. That leaves two areas of interest: readers and conversion tools.

eBook reading devices

ETI had two different models: one with a full color 8.5-inch diagonal device with compact flash memory, a dial-up model, and an Ethernet port, and another with a grayscale 5.5-inch diagonal screen, SmartMedia card slot, dial-up modem, and USB port.

Neither of these devices sounds particularly competitive. Forget cellular capabilities, they didn't even have Wi-Fi. However, the company does have a set of software that it would license to power e-readers:

The core underlying firmware used in ETI's eBook device technology is available for license. It consists of the following components: an embedded operating system, a file system, networking infrastructure, a graphics subsystem and most importantly the intuitive ETI reading experience layer. Heavy use of a book metaphor avoids computer-centric interactions throughout the UI, reinforcing the immersive quality of reading and replicating it uncompromisingly within ETI reading devices.
Having developed Chrome OS after it acquired Android, Google has shown that it's not adverse to supporting more than one operating system. So why not a third that it would license to manufacturers?

The only problem is the question of the target hardware audience. Maybe Google intends this as a jumping off point for its smartphone and tablet vendors to develop another line of products (free software stack, of course) that would tie in Google's online ebook store.

However, there is that SpeedBook trademark it applied for last August. At the time, it seemed that it might be a name for a Google-branded netbook running Chrome OS. However, why not a Google-branded e-reader? Google could have someone else build it, as it is doing with the Nexus N smartphone and, likely, some Chrome OS netbook.

In either case, I'd expect to see Google in the e-reader business in some form or another.

Content conversion and publication tools

That leaves the other product category, which would make a lot of sense. Google is bound to want far more material for its bookstore, especially from publishers and authors who have books that they'd like to reissue. Make the conversion process easy (and free), and the company could attract a lot of material.

In addition, Google uses the epub format, and ETI also supported epub. Google already has a collection of third-party tools to generate and manage epub documents. Having a suite of its own tools could be a smart move, providing a service to those who own content.

Patent litigation conspiracy theory

There is one other possibility. As InformationWeek pointed out, ETI appears to have a number of patents in this area:
eBook Technologies licenses e-book technology from companies hailing from dot com boom at the turn of the second millennium: SoftBook Press, NuvoMedia, and Gemstar. It also appears to have rights related to some relevant patents, such as one titled "Electronic Display Device Event Tracking," which lists eBook Technologies co-founder and president Garth Conboy among the inventors.

Indeed, the company boasts about its intellectual property portfolio on its Web site, or at least it did until these pages were removed in conjunction with the acquisition. "Patented areas of the eBook technology suite cover the unique designs, features and functions of the entire eBook publishing system," the company states on its old Web site. "Intellectual property includes: the eBook system and features, cryptography, user interface elements, industrial design and manufacturing processes."

A search on the US Patent and Trademark Office database brings up three patent applications:
Depending on what the patents actually cover, it could be that Google wants to buy some patent protection that could arguably extend to some features of smartphones and tablets.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.