Jeffrey Young explains why he isn't a big fan of Sony's latest e-book reader:
When is Sony going to get it? Ever since the Trinitron and the Walkman, Japan's greatest consumer electronics business has stumbled from one bad product to another, fumbled every opportunity it has been handed to own digital assets, and seen its vaunted brand name eclipsed by Samsung among others.
Now Sony is taking on books. Judging by the Sony Portable Reader, its track record won't change any time soon.
The latest example of Sony's myopia is a soon-to-be-released combination of brain dead technology meeting yesteryear's business model. This initiative is built around a $300 to $400 handheld device designed to be about the size of a big paperback book, weighing 9 ounces, and equipped with a six-inch screen that displays black type on an off-white screen and uses flash memory for digital storage. The idea is that a consumer will buy formatted copies of published books from Sony's Web site or load up Word or Acrobat pdf documents. The big innovation? A new kind of screen technology called E-Ink that lets words be displayed in high-res (like a laser printer output) without using much power.
Haven't we heard this idea before? Didn't electronic books fail miserably a few years back? Isn't it totally obvious that compared to buying a book, which is utterly portable, requires no batteries, has a well-defined user interface, and comes equipped to be understood by most pairs of eyes, buying a crippled digital player that can only handle one kind of media--and can't even surf the Web in 2006--is a stupid idea. Add the fact that you can only buy books that publishers have translated into Sony's format, running the gauntlet of the company's own hated Digital Rights Management software, and that they cost almost as much as the book anyway, and you have to wonder what is in the sushi they serve at Sony's headquarters. For about the same price as one of these "readers," I can buy a PDA that has few limitations, will surf the Web and let me send email, is about the same size, and can already display books to boot. Speaking of PDAs, Palm even created an electronic books subsidiary called ereader.com that seems to be thriving. What exactly is Sony adding?
OK. OK. OK. There have been a few successful products of the electronic book ilk. Franklin Electronic Publishers has produced a stream of calculator-sized electronic dictionaries and phrasebooks that meet a need. But here's the difference: These are cheap devices that are designed to do a couple of things well. If you need to find a toilet in Abu Dhabi and want to let a speech synthesis chip ask the question for you in Arabic, so be it.
A handful of companies are rethinking the book for the digital age--for instance Audible, with its iTunes books--and podcasting is giving a new dimension to the blogged word. But the Sony Reader is expensive, hobbled by restrictions, doesn't move the ball forward, and if you doze off reading it in bed, letting it fall to the floor, oops! there goes the investment.
Somehow there's a kind of poetic justice in the inept partnership between Sony and the book publishing business trying to win in a backwater of media where no one has yet triumphed. Not content with having misplayed the digital music game completely, the company now hooks up with the one media industry that has totally screwed up in the digital age. Book publishing is still mired in the Gutenberg era and writers themselves are among the most reactionary netizens; efforts to introduce new Internet ideas like Google Print with full searchable text accompanied by book buying ads, get shot down by phalanxes of lawyers determined to protect the (unprofitable) status-quo. Books remain walled off gardens full of ideas that are hard to find when you need them, populated with content that is difficult to peruse through search engines, and are characterized by passionate writing that is rarely retrievable yet using digital tools.
Meanwhile companies like Brightcove and Reuters are finding new ways to deliver and monetize video through the Internet, podcasting has given audio a boost, and communities like MySpace and Flickr make printed words seem so…last year. Is it any wonder that the MTV Generation has stopped buying old world technology books?
As a writer who makes a living from words, I'd certainly like to see new initiatives to digitally enhance books and get my work and research out to many more people, in a bevy of new ways. There are a few glimmers of hope from companies like Amazon and Yahoo and I hope they succeed, and soon. Unfortunately, Sony's Reader is the wrong answer for the Internet Age. The sooner it is put to rest, the better.
Jeffrey S. Young is the author of two books about Steve Jobs--iCon Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs The Journey is the Reward--as well as several others about science and technology.