Adobe's new ebook reader ratchets up fight against Kindle

The new Adobe Reader Mobile 9 SDK is aimed at smartphones and handhelds
  • Eric Lai (Computerworld)
  • 19 February, 2009 09:04

Adobe Systems this week announced its second major move in the e-book market in the last five months as the multimedia software vendor looks to build a consortium to take on Amazon.com and its market-leading Kindle e-book reader.

On Monday, Adobe released a new Adobe Reader Mobile 9 that improves how smartphones and handheld devices display books and other documents that use the open PDF format created by Adobe.

Adobe Reader Mobile 9 replaces the prior Reader LE as the mobile counterpart to the Adobe Digital Editions reader for desktop PCs.

For ebook lovers, the most important new feature in Reader Mobile 9 is PDF reflow, which automatically shrinks and reformats pages for the small screen so readers don't have to pan and zoom around overly-large pages, Anup Murarka, director of partner development and technology strategy at Adobe's platform business unit, said in an interview last week.

For developers, key features in Adobe Reader Mobile 9 include support for the .epub XML document standard that is catching on with libraries and publishers, and compatibility with Adobe Content Server 4, the company's ebook management software.

Companies licensing the software development kit (SDK) for Reader Mobile include Sony, whose Sony Reader is widely considered the second most popular model on the market today, and Lexcycle, maker of the free Stanza ebook software that turns Apple's iPhone into an ebook reader. Lexcycle claims Stanza has 1.3 million users.

Most other leading ebook hardware makers are also licensing the new SDK, according to Adobe, including Bookeen; iRex; Plastic Logic; and Polymer Vision.

Adobe has no plans to make a Kindle-like device. Rather, as with products such as Flash, Adobe hopes to profit by giving away Reader Mobile in order to sell back-end software to publishers and booksellers, in this case, Content Server 4, which it released last September. The software protects PDF and .epub formatted ebooks from piracy while granting book publishers and sellers multiple ways to license their wares. It also helps manage distribution of ebooks through the Web to PCs and devices.

Not falling into line with Adobe's ambitions is Amazon, which develops and requires publishers to support its own proprietary ebook format for the Kindle. Kindles can display PDFs, but won't support automatic text reflow and DRM, since Amazon doesn't license Adobe's technology.

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David Rothman, co-editor of the TeleRead blog on the ebook industry, compares the Adobe-Amazon battle to the one in the PC space between Microsoft and Apple. Like Microsoft, Adobe is pursuing a more open, partner-centric strategy, while Amazon, like Apple, is mostly going it alone.

"Amazon is saying: 'We care about the customer experience so much we need to control everything and not support standards,'" Rothman said. That gives Amazon and Apple "something in common: both are control freaks as companies."

"I would never compare Adobe to Microsoft," Adobe's Murarka said, with a laugh. "But yes, Amazon is taking a more active approach to creating an ecosystem around its own technology. But even in that environment, I see tremendous value for [Amazon to license and better support] PDF."

Observers remain critical of Adobe's ongoing push for PDF, rather than getting 100% behind .epub, as well as Adobe's pro-DRM stance. As Rothman said, "Adobe is controlling, too, but overall it is a lot more inclusive" than Amazon.