From Fremont, Calif.,-based Spring Design comes the Alex, an e-reader slated for a CES coming out party. Alex, named for the Ancient Library of Alexandria, once the largest and most famous libraries of the ancient world, is notable for its support of the Android operating system as well as its use of two screens, capable of interaction with one another. Unlike the Nook, which also has two screens (there is some legal dispute over patent issues) Alex’s two screens, E Ink-based e-reader on top with a 3.5-inch LCD screen below, support HTML books by grabbing content from the web in the bottom screen, then rendering it in the ereader pane.
So, new battle lines are drawn: e Pub (universal open format, DRM primarily from Adobe’s ACS4) vs. .azw (Amazon’s proprietary DRM of the Mobipocket format) vs. good old fashioned HTML, DRM by…well, probably Google. HTML 5.0 does not currently stack up well against e Pub (which is XHTML) as e Pub contains specific metadata referring to publishing specific content such as table of contents. Fast forwarding, Google could turn its Chrome OS into an ereading environment complete with DRM and open up application development to those wanting to innovate using HTML (which itself is a format/platform in evolution). All of this dovetails nicely into Google Edition, the search megagiant’s plans to conquer the commercial ebook world.
Alex is betting that one of the reasons that advanced development for HTML as a flexible book format (there are many books available in HTML, but they work only in web browsers) stems from the fact that few ereaders contain web browsers because E Ink does a poor job of rendering web browsers. Using the dual-screen approach somewhat solves that problem. On the other hand, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, also an Andoid device, has a dual screen but the color LCD does not currently support a web browser.
There is some clarity in all this confusion: it is clear that a key player in this ebook melee will be the developer community. Developers will gravitate toward the platform that offers them scale, room to innovate and make money. Waiting in the public shadows, perhaps with the ability to tie the pieces together (format, device, development, content, sales) is Apple. Even without a formal announcement, it is Apple’s opportunity should it move from somewhat stealth to full-scale attack. As we speak, Apple’s brass is apparently talking to publishers of all stripes as well as key developers before taking the ereader plunge. The Magic 8 Ball says yes, with a Spring 2010 launch. Will the ereading battle end at that point or only get more interesting?