Adobe's new e-book software ratchets up fight against Amazon Kindle

The new Adobe Reader Mobile 9 SDK is aimed at smartphones and handhelds

Adobe Systems Inc. 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 Inc. and its market-leading Kindle e-book reader.

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

Adobe Reader Mobile 9 replaces Reader LE as the Adobe software developers kit (SDK) that device and software makers can use to render e-books. It differs from Adobe Digital Editions, which is an actual e-book software client freely downloadable for available for desktop PCs.

For e-book lovers, the most important new feature in Reader Mobile 9 is PDF reflow, which automatically shrinks and reformats PDFs 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, which is catching on with libraries and publishers, and compatibility with Adobe Content Server 4, the company's e-book management software.

Companies licensing the Reader Mobile SDK include Sony Corp., whose Sony Reader is widely considered to be the second most popular model on the market today, and Lexcycle Inc., maker of Stanza, which is free software that's designed to turn Apple Inc.'s iPhone into an e-book reader. Lexcycle claims Stanza has 1.3 million users.

Most other leading e-book hardware makers are also licensing the new SDK, according to Adobe. They include Paris-based Bookeen, iRex Technologies, Plastic Logic Ltd. and London-based Polymer Vision Ltd.

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 its Content Server 4 back-end software to publishers and booksellers. Released last September, Content Server 4 is designed to protect PDF- and .epub-formatted e-books from piracy while granting book publishers and sellers multiple ways to license their wares. It also helps manage distribution of e-books through the Web to PCs and mobile devices.

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

David Rothman, co-editor of the TeleRead blog, which covers the e-book industry, compares the Adobe-Amazon battle to the one in the PC market 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.

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