Spring Design Sues Barnes and Noble Over Nook E-Reader

Spring Design, a small IT startup, claims that Barnes & Noble's Nook infringes on their own Alex e-reader. Both devices claim a dual-screen form-factor, powered by Google Android. The e-reader space has become more competitive in the past few months, with not only Barnes & Noble but a host of smaller startups announcing their own devices, all of them hoping to take market share away from Amazon.com and its line of Kindle e-readers.

What's the difference between two e-reader models, produced by separate companies, that both include dual screens and a Google Android operating system? According to Spring Design, which unveiled its Alex e-reader with just such a form-factor on Oct. 19, not much-which is why it plans on suing Barnes & Noble over the latter's own device, the Nook, that also runs on Android and features two displays.

"Spring Design unfortunately had to take appropriate action to protect its intellectual property rights," Eric Kmiec, Spring Design's vice president of sales and marketing, said in a Nov. 2 statement. "We showed the Alex e-book design to Barnes & Noble in good faith with the intention of working together to provide a superior dual screen e-book to the market."

Spring Design announced Alex on Oct. 19, a day before Barnes & Noble's Nook made its high-profile debut in New York City. As part of that announcement, Spring Design described a device that included a 6-inch monochrome electronic paper display paired with a 3.5-inch color LCD touch-screen capable of displaying multi-media content. It will be able to connect to the Web via Wi-Fi or 3G, EVDO/CDMA and GSM mobile networks. The company suggested that, while it was still looking for distribution partners, the e-reader would likely make its debut by the end of the year.

Barnes & Noble's Nook, which also runs on the Google Android operating system, features a 6-inch e-ink display alongside a second multi-touch display for navigation and book purchasing. During a presentation at Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River, William Lynch, president of Barnes & Noble's online site, demonstrated how that touch-screen component could be used to flip through a book catalog and buy a book with two finger-taps.

Spring Design claims that it had discussed the features and capabilities of its e-reader with Barnes & Noble as far back as "the beginning of 2009," and that the bookseller had signed a non-disclosure agreement regarding the device. The company did not specify a damages amount.

"As a matter of policy, Barnes & Noble does not comment on litigation," Mary Ellen Keating, a spokesperson for Barnes & Noble, said in an e-mail to eWEEK on Nov. 3.

The Nook is still scheduled for release at the end of November, with a price point of $259. Barnes & Noble's eBookstore, launched in July, will provide Nook users with a library of some 700,000 downloadable books, alongside another 500,000 free public-domain volumes from Google; books can also be downloaded via a B&N app for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Barnes & Noble has aimed the Nook squarely at challenging Amazon.com's dominant mind-share in the e-reader arena, and Amazon.com has responded by slashing the prices for its original Kindle device to $259.

While the overall market for e-readers remains relatively small, with Forrester Research predicting some 3 million units sold in the U.S. in 2009, they are increasingly important for online retailers such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Although Amazon.com has declined to break out exact numbers, CEO Jeff Bezos has claimed in the past that Kindle-related sales bring in 35 percent of his company's book-related revenue.

Smaller IT startups, including Plastic Logic, have also announced plans to release e-readers into the marketplace. Plastic Logic's QUE, scheduled to debut in 2010, will be aimed at the SMB (small- to medium-sized business) and enterprise markets, with the ability to download and display Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and PDF documents.

For much of 2009, Amazon.com managed to corner much of the public's attention with high-profile debuts for each successive Kindle device, including a rollout event in New York City for the Kindle 2 that included a reading by bestselling author Stephen King. As more devices from competing companies prepare to hit the marketplace, however, the attention will likely shift to other devices-not to mention the lawsuits they cause.