Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Spring Design: Here’s How Barnes & Noble Turned Our Reader Into the Nook

perry_masonPuzzled by the weird story of the “Alex,” the would-be e-reader that looks something like the “Nook,” the e-reader Barnes & Noble introduced last month? Then this won’t clear anything up: Spring Design’s court case against the bookseller, which it says broke an “implicit promise” and stole its idea for a two-screen device.

Spring sued Barnes & Noble yesterday in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., accusing the bookseller of turning its “Alex” design into the Nook. I have embedded a copy of the complaint below, but here’s the short version:

  • The Nook, which is on sale now and is supposed to ship this month, runs on Google’s Android (GOOG) platform and sports a large monochrome screen and a smaller color screen. The Alex, which doesn’t appear to be in production yet, is also supposed to run on Android and will feature two screens.
  • Spring signed an NDA with Barnes & Noble (BKS) on Feb. 12 this year and says it first met with the company to show off its design for a dual-screen e-reader shortly after that.
  • By May, Spring was showing the design to B&N.com president William Lynch. Spring says Lynch warned it not to work with Amazon (AMZN) because that company would “steal Spring’s unique idea.”
  • The two companies talked a few more times during the summer.
  • Spring says that “up until B&N’s Nook announcement on October 20…it believed that it was disclosing the confidential features of its Alex device in exchange for B&N’s implicit promise that it would seriously consider acquiring Spring’s product.”

Happy to hear from experts who know consumer electronics and/or trade-secret law, but I can’t say I’m convinced by Spring’s argument.

For one thing, Barnes & Noble would have had to work very fast to copy Spring’s design and get it to market in less than a year. Another problem with Spring’s case: As far as I can tell–based on its own complaint–Spring only showed Barnes & Noble some PowerPoint slides, which means there wasn’t much for it to copy.

Eric Kmiec, Spring’s VP of sales and marketing, told me last month that he and CEO Priscilla Lu were brought in this summer to “focus” the Cupertino, Calif.-based firm, which had previously been “playing around in R&D” and had “no real market focus.” It’s hard to believe that the bookseller had made a promise–even an “implicit” one–to buy something that didn’t exist.

Anyone have a different take? Please let me know via email or in comments, below.


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