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Barnes & Noble chases Amazon with ebook second coming

No Plastic Logic. Yet

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Chasing Amazon and its Orwell-deleting Kindle, US retail giant Barnes & Noble has returned to the digital book business.

The company that bills itself as the world's largest book seller announced what it calls the world's largest ebookstore. But unlike Amazon, B&N hasn't backed its ebookstore with its very own handheld ebook reading device.

It's selling digital texts for a software app that runs on the Apple iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the RIM BlackBerry as well as full-fledged Windows and Mac desktops and laptops. And when the device debuts next year, B&N will be the exclusive digital bookstore for a Kindle-challenging handheld reader from a cross-Atlantic startup known as Plastic Logic.

"Today marks the first phase of our digital strategy, which is rooted in the belief that readers should have access to the books in their digital library from any device, from anywhere, at any time,” reads a canned statement from William J. Lynch, president of BN.com.

"As America’s number-one bookstore and newsstand, our goal at Barnes & Noble is to build a service that revolves around the customer, enabling them to have access to hundreds of thousands of titles and read on their smartphone, PC, and many other existing and future devices. We want to make eBooks simple, accessible, affordable and convenient for everyone."

But calling this the first phase is a tad misleading. B&N orginally entered the ebook biz in 2000, backed by a digital title from uber-novelist Stephen King and PC-based software readers Microsoft and Adobe. But the venture never quite took off, and the company shutdown its entire ebookstore in September of 2003.

Since then, Amazon has reinvented the market with the Kindle - a slim handheld device that Jeff Bezos and company maintain Big-Brother-like control over - and B&N wants back in. Its new eBookstore - available here - offers more than 700,000 titles, and the company expects this catalog will grow to over one million ebooks by the middle of next year.

More than half a million titles are free public-domain works from Google, a well-known Silicon Valley outfit that also enjoys scanning copyrighted works without the permission of authors and publishers.

Barnes and Noble's reader app is based on technology from Fictionwise, an indie book seller it acquired for $15.7m this spring. Amazon has yet to offer software for the BlackBerry, but it does offer a Kindle reader app for the iPhone. ®

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