Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

Summary: Why would Sony make such trade-offs between touch and connectivity for its e-readers? Sony is playing a global game and perhaps 3G and Wi-Fi just doesn't matter as much to folks in China and Spain.

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Sony's new e-readers are a vast improvement over its previous versions. The latest Sony Readers are lighter, show off touch navigation on an E-Ink screen and could be worthy choices in the e-reader wars vs. Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But there are trade-offs in the devices that could pay off---or blow up---for Sony.

Understanding the Sony Reader trade-offs requires you to zoom out. From a U.S. perspective Sony's moves may be confusing. On a global scale, Sony looks quite logical.

The biggest trade-off here---at least for connected U.S. consumers---is the touch vs. connectivity choice. For instance, Sony gives you touch navigation, but its Pocket and Touch readers don't off Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity. Steve Haber, president of Sony's digital reading division, says that the company's research shows that most customers tether their devices. When I asked Haber whether Sony was risking a confirmation bias---customers are tethering because that's the only way to connect---and he acknowledged that there's a risk.

When Sony set out to make its e-readers, it had an interesting mix of features to balance. For starters, Sony has the only e-reader among the big three that have real touch. Barnes & Noble's Nook has touch navigation on a little strip, but Sony's e-readers allow you to swipe to turn the page.

Also: Sony launches new e-readers; Will pricing matter?

When I took Amazon's latest Kindle for a spin, I was told that there were too many compromises with touch navigation. In a nutshell, touch had latency because the signal sent by your fingers had to go through two planes---glass and the E-ink. Sony, however, eliminated the need for an overlay screen. Now touch is much more intuitive and works well.

Sony's E-Ink touch navigation is a real difference maker. It took some getting used to, but worked well overall.

But Sony doesn't quite close the deal. Why? Its touch readers don't do Wi-Fi. And then Sony has higher price points. Sony's highest end reader has a 7-inch screen, 3G and Wi-Fi, but will set you back $299. The mid-range Touch, which Haber is betting will be its most popular unit, goes for $229. The Sony Pocket Reader will run you $179. It has touch navigation and a 5-inch screen. Of course, you have to tether.

Add it up and you have these moving parts:

  • Amazon will give you the 3G and Wi-Fi with its $189 Kindle. However, there's no touch. A Wi-Fi Kindle is $139.
  • Barnes & Noble has a Wi-Fi Nook for $149. Barnes & Noble gives you some touch navigation, but there is a latency issue with its Android implementation.
  • Sony gives you touch navigation has higher price points, but you have to tether. Instead of plastic casing you get brushed aluminum in various colors.

Simply put, if you're shopping for an e-reader Sony's devices will largely win or lose based on how you weigh touch vs. connectivity. I'm assuming that Sony's Daily Reader won't be a huge win at $299.

Haber acknowledges the risks, but says Sony was giving the best device at a good price. He says that a Wi-Fi, 3G chip would have bumped up the prices for the Touch and Pocket readers. "Wi-Fi would have raised the cost when 99 percent of the time spent with an e-reader is focused on just reading," says Haber. "We invested in the best possible screen experience. That's where we put our dollars/yen."

Now Sony could be wrong with its trade-off guesses. Haber notes that Sony has a habit of being 5-years too early on trends---a comical reference to the launch of e-readers in 2003.

Playing for the globe

Why would Sony make such trade-offs between touch and connectivity? Sony is playing a global game and perhaps 3G and Wi-Fi just doesn't matter as much in Spain, Japan and China. Haber in Sony's statement reveals the company's strategy.

Haber said that Sony is launching in "the countries we already serve" but also expanding into "previously untapped markets." He added that Sony takes "a thoughtful approach to country expansion, including Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan and China, working with local bookstores to ensure content is compatible, relevant and in the appropriate language for each market.”

In the U.S. it won't be hard to find techies to pan the Sony Reader trade-offs. How can a reader not have Wi-Fi?

However, there's a big picture here---and its global. In our 75 minute conversation, Haber mentioned global reach a bunch of times. The Reader carries global dictionaries in various languages. Sony is plotting China, Europe and a bevy of emerging markets for its Reader.

Sony, widely assumed to be No. 2 in the e-reader market behind Amazon, could be playing to be Nokia. Nokia is big everywhere around the globe except the U.S.

Sony's situation won't be that dire. Sony will be a player in the U.S., but the real win will be in places like Russia, Brazil and China. Why? Sony's brand carries a lot of weight. And Sony has the retail partnerships that wrap around the globe.

Meanwhile, Amazon and Barnes & Noble will be hard-pressed to replicate Sony's global reach. If the global trend is to move away from paper to bits of data the e-reader market worldwide is just beginning. Sony can be everywhere its primary rivals can't. Meanwhile, Sony's real rivals---companies like Samsung---don't have e-readers or the content that needs to ride shotgun. Sony's store is comparable to the others and has seen its 10 millionth book download.

So let's sum up:

  • Sony has distribution;
  • Credible and improving e-readers;
  • And a truly global brand.

Sony won't downplay the U.S. market totally, but it's clear the company is eyeing a larger e-reader stage---the globe.

Topics: CXO, Hardware, Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

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45 comments
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  • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

    I would have to agree with Larry's assessment. As I was considering an e-reader I only seriously looked at the Kindle and Nook. My previous experience with contacting anybody at Sony for customer service in their other divisions left me cold. I did not even think about a Sony when I made my choice.<br>I picked a Nook and have been very happy with it. I have spoken to many folks about their choices and it is all between the Nook and Kindle. What's sonys device called, anyway?
    pinecone69
    • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

      http://elurl.com/o9d
      I LOVE
      lincc263
  • Ugh

    Bad decision. The whole experience of managing files between different devices/drives/computers is one that is thankfully becoming obsolete. My iPhone has a few albums and videos in the "iPod" app, but mostly I use Rhapsody and (now) Netflix to access media from the cloud. Likewise, the ease with which you can access your Kindle library from all sorts of devices and have the bookmarks automatically sync makes Sony's device look like a relic already.
    ej1980
  • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

    Not sure what the world's fascination with touch interfaces is. Seems to me that just encourages needless complexity in usage & software and adds cost. I love my Reader Pocket Edition. When I press the page advance button the the next page is displayed. Nice and simple, it just works. The new Kindle is appealing with its price and library of titles, but I'd prefer a non-wifi edition that costs even less. Books are very rarely an impulse buy for me, so having wireless technologies built-in makes little sense to me except for periodicals which I doubt will ever take off on eReaders.
    ncted
    • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

      agree. I never make an impulsive book purchase. I usually tether to charge anyway, so I purchase at the same time. When I purchase, I purchase several at one time. Don't need touch, don't need 3G or wifi. LOVE that Sony's eReaders aren't encased in cheap plastic.
      sgurkins
      • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

        @sgurkins Thanks for sharing. i really appreciate it that you shared with us such a informative post..
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        disturbforce
    • In the same boat... :-)

      @ncted
      Same here, bought 3 PRS-505 for my wife and relatives (I got mine PRS-505 as a present).

      Very happy camper. No Wi-Fi, no 3G, no touch screen, great e-Ink screen readability, great battery life.

      When I was buying 3rd reader the sales person told me not to take PRS-600 (touch screen), but I knew it myself looking at how bad the image was.

      Not sure why people are so excited about touchscreen.

      Periodicals can be downloaded to e-readers using free software Colibri...
      Solid Water
  • Stupidity Rules

    "perhaps 3G and Wi-Fi just doesn?t matter as much in Spain, Japan and China" Maybe it matters in those countries a bit more than in the USA, most networks and infrastructure in ANY given Asian economy is superior to that of many Western Countries.
    rhon@...
  • Fascination with touch is reasonable

    Again, global reach. It's much easier to customize the user interface on a touch-screen device than to silk-screen icons onto the plastic. And if there's an issue or an opportunity in, say, China, Sony can just issue a software update instead of obsoleting all their devices. It makes global sense.
    Jim from Indy
  • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

    Great. One more e-reader for my book !!!

    Tej
    Author - God is No Angel
    Web Cave - www.thejendra.com
    thejendra@...
  • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

    Sony would have to pay me to put up with their customer service again. The worse mistake I ever made was buying a Sony PRS600.
    karddie
  • Sony's Latest e-Readers

    I have several Sony products that they have abandoned and I'd be leery of buying a reader from them. Better to stick with Amazon who wants to make money from selling e-books.
    wwgorman
  • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

    I use my Sony Touch daily. It replaced a Pocket Edition without touch, and I must say, the touch version is much easier to use. I hold it and turn pages with one hand, using my thumb to turn the page. Also very sturdy -- the aluminum case is very durable. My wife sat on my reader with no ill effect. Tethering is required to charge so I see no issue with tethering to download. And most important to me, Sony supports non-proprietary non-DRM formats (which I don't think is the case with kindle or Nook).
    zlsk
    • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

      @zlsk i believe nook supports non-DRM ePub, though B&N only sells ebooks with their closed DRM. I don't know if nook supports the Adobe DRM for ePub or not.
      Hazydave
    • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

      @zlsk
      Kindle supports PDF and text, and can easily convert ePub documents (although it is true it can't read them natively)
      scorchgeek
    • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

      @zlsk
      Kindle does MOBI
      Nook does EPUB
      So same as Sony but different open formats
      sarahsbloke
      • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

        @zisk & @sarahsbloke:
        Nook & Sony both do EPUB. Mobi is not the same. It's potentially an openDRM, but it's not EPUB. Why deal with conversion between all those formats? I've had a PRS-600 for a year and I just bought my wife a Wi-fi-only Nook. The Nook wins with some features, most importantly, the contrast ratio and non-reflective screen. The web browser is a good addition, but because it's not a true touch interface it's clunky, and the lag caused by the android makes it even more difficult to use efficiently, so I don't really miss not having it on my Sony.
        On the Sony side, as a teacher who makes notes in books for class discussion, the Sony touch is invaluable. For my 12-year old, because he can just double-tap an unfamiliar word to call it from the dictionary instead of tapping a cursor button to the word 2/3 the way down the page means that he's much more likely to pause reading to look up the word.
        Consider accessories as well. My PRS-600 has a Sony-made case with a light that folds down into the case. We shopped at several different stores to find a similar solution for the Nook, but couldn't find one. Instead, we bought a light accessory and my wife has to store it in a pocket in the nylon zip case she selected to go with it. That's a hassle that would frustrate me. That light case is one of the PRS-600's best features.
        Book format issues: I'd never admit to doing it, but there are several scripts out there that strip DRM from B&N EPub which makes them readable on the Sony. That gives access to the wide selection of the B&N store (and Amazon, too or so I hear...) for the Sony, so the lack of selections at the Sony online store isn't an issue. Here's another consideration (or so I hear ;) The Sony doesn't differentiate between "Sony" books and the others. On the Nook, all non-B&N books are lumped in a separate area. They may have their reasons for doing it that way, but as a user it doesn't make sense to me. I want my ereader content upfront and center, not separated out in a My Documents section.

        In short, the contrast and screen reflection is much better on the Nook and Kindle, but their other features I don't miss on my Sony. On the other hand, when I use my wife's Nook, I really miss all the features of my Sony PRS-600.
        jcanker@...
  • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

    Lack of connectivity is a deal breaker for me. I use the on-line store in my Nook very often. While I am reading, if there is a reference to another book, I can immediately explore the option of purchasing that book. Or if a topic presents itself to me, I can immediately explore what books are available. Recently, this made my wife quite happy on a long drive through Arizona. With the world going toward increased ability to connect without wires, why would Sony choose to go the opposite direction?
    mhmcintyre
    • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

      @mhmcintyre: Sony isn't going in the opposite direction to Wi-Fi .. It's just not going there at all at the moment. - There is a difference and it's not a backward move as you imply. The strategy makes sense in Worldwide terms, this may suprise you but wireless isn't found in many places where some people would expect it to be.. So the thinking is why have wi-fi when in lots of places (Globally..) it just isn't (Gasp..) available. Looking for Wi-Fi in some countries and regions is rather like taking a hundred dollar fisher space pen to work, it's pointless unless you are an astronaut. - You can connect via usb at home or at a public connection such as a library etc. - Surely having to wait the extra hour or find the extra few minutes to download some book (They usually take days to read..) so isn't so much hassle on a device that can store so many books and documents? (I mean the simple answer is to read another one instead for gods sake...) I think that you'll find that many people will be pleased to have the opportunity to read a book on an e-reader that doesn't have wireless and those folk would find the wireless function useless.. Anyone could go to a (usb) point to service their needs. Also, there is a huge difference between devices with wi-fi and 3g etc, and those without in terms of battery life alone. - Wireless drains batteries far faster reducing portability further, an important factor when considering travel. No, for me the real "Deal Breaker.." is the higher price. I don't really "Need" Wi-Fi and am happy to live without real-time updates, muddling through with hourly or daily ones instead. No, just lower the price to at least compete with the Kindle and they have another customer in me for one..
      True Patriot
      • RE: Sony's latest e-readers: Understanding the trade-offs and global strategy

        @True Patriot
        You can easily turn wireless off if you're worried about battery life. And the wi-fi kindle is $50 cheaper than the cheapest no-wireless Sony. So although the Sony e-reader may have other reasons to recommend it, there's really not much reason in that argument.
        scorchgeek