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Amazon said to buy touch start-up

The company has acquired Touchco, a New York-based start-up, according to a person briefed on the deal.

In a sign that Amazon wants to upgrade its Kindle e-reader to compete head-on with the Apple iPad, Amazon has acquired Touchco, a New York-based start-up specializing in touch-screen technology, a person briefed on the deal said Wednesday.

Amazon will merge Touchco's technology and staff into its Kindle hardware division, Lab126, which is based in Cupertino, Calif., this person said. Touchco, which began as a project at New York University's Media Research Lab, had roughly six employees and had not yet turned its technology into a commercial product. It is not clear what the terms of the deal were.

An Amazon spokeswoman, Mary Osako, said the company would not comment on rumors and speculation. Ilya Rosenberg, a Touchco co-founder, declined to comment.

Touchco uses a technology called interpolating force-sensitive resistance, which it puts into displays that can be completely transparent and could cost as little as $10 a square foot. The capacitive touch screens used in the iPad and iPhone are considerably more expensive. Unlike those screens, the Touchco screens can also detect an unlimited number of simultaneous touch points.

Touchco's technology uses resistors that are sensitive to different levels of pressure. It has said its screens can distinguish between the touch of a finger and the pressure of a pen or similar pointing device. The company had designed its technology to work well with full-color LCD screens, similar to those used in the iPad and Hewlett-Packard's coming line of tablet PCs. The technology could allow Amazon to introduce a full-color touch-screen Kindle, raising the question of whether the device's current displays, which are made by a company called E Ink will play a role in the next round of reading devices.

Donald Norman, a Northwestern University professor and an expert on design and engineering, said that while E Ink's technology is well suited for reading long books, "it is too slow and ponderous" for reference works, multimedia and any tablet device that seeks to connect to a wide range of entertainment. He said that to respond to the iPad, Amazon could either drop the price of the current Kindle or "compete and switch to some other type of display."

The acquisition "would suggest Amazon is looking to expand its platform perhaps beyond e-readers to encompass more functionality and more content," said Colin Sebastian, an analyst at Lazard Capital. "It also could help them address some of the form-factor issues with the Kindle," allowing it to, say, replace the physical keyboard with a virtual one, he said.

"If touch screens were added to the Kindle or other Amazon devices, it would bring them up to date with the plethora of other screens consumers are becoming used to," Sebastian said. "Any device is at a disadvantage if it doesn't offer it."

Amazon has been looking to compete with Apple on other fronts as well. Last month, it announced plans for a Kindle applications store and an effort to get developers to create the same breadth of programs for the Kindle that they have created for the iPhone and, soon, the iPad.

Touchco recently stripped everything from its Web site and YouTube page. The site has only a note saying: "Thank you for your interest in Touchco. As of January 2010, the company is no longer doing business."

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