Sony's misguided e-book Reader

Sony's misguided e-book Reader

Summary: 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.

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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. 

ebook.jpg

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.  

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76 comments
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  • Pretty lame

    Interesting technology, but I'm going to have a hard time paying an
    extra $400 for something that doesn't work as well as what I have
    now.
    tic swayback
  • Successful electronic books

    http://www.webscription.net

    Bestselling titles, cheaper than paper, portable, download "your" books as often as you like, no DRM, plain HTML, the authors get a fair share of the profits, searchable, ...

    Oh, and did I mention that there's a rather large Free Library with killer titles?
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Uhm...depends on what you mean by

      "bestselling" and "killer titles". I hope you are being sarcastic.

      I didn't see a single title there that I or anyone I know would want to read, nor any real bestsellers that would appeal to a broad audience. Library is limited to a few hundred sci fi and fantasy titles with limited appeal, not to mention the spectacular website design and layout, circa 1996.
      Syaka
      • He means bestselling and killer titles

        or perhaps you simply don't like books published by Baen.

        Although I think Sony's offering is substantially less interesting than the one from ebookwise.com (mine and my wife's charge in about 1 hour each).
        One of them we added 128meg to, the other still has the 64meg in it.

        oh, and the advantage over a "real book" is you can carry 100 novels in it (I know, a bit much even for a 2 week vacation) but it takes a heckuva lot less space.
        and ebookwise over sony: you can read it in the dark, lying in bed, withOUT a room light to disturb other(s).

        and nobody (except maybe you) gives a rat's patuti about the web design.
        vawjr@...
        • EBookwise better than Sony??

          EBookwise: 10 books on internal memory
          Sony: 160 books on internal memory

          EBookwise: SmartMemory cards. $30/64MB
          Sony: 2 SD cards - 1GB/$13

          EBookwise: Backlit 4-bit LCD
          Sony: 8-bit E-Ink screen
          'Backlit is better because it lets you read in the dark!'
          But it doesn't let you read in the light which is why I can't stand ebooks on my laptop of PDA. I personally read more often in the light or where there is a light available than in the dark where there is no light available. The EInk screen is VERY high contrast, I was surprised by it when I first saw the reader.

          EBookWise: 18 oz
          Sony: 9oz

          EBookWise: Reads ebookwise content, html, DOC, TXT, RTF, or Rocket eBook. No mention of PDF!!
          Sony: TXT, RTF, BBeB (Marlin) open or DRM, DOC (converter needed?), PDF. No mention of HTML!! Also image and music.

          EBookWise: Use their server to load books, or BUY special software to load on to the SmartMemory cards
          Sony: Use their local software to load books, or drag/drop to SD cards.

          And I care about their website. If they present themselves as amateurs why should I trust them for not only the product but also the service and security? With EBookWise I have to trust their server to be up and maintained in order to put books on the device (unless I buy more software from them). What if they go down? What if my internet fails? A company with a bad web site doesn't instill confidence in NEW users. Perhaps as a current customer you know better, and I am not saying they provide bad service. Just saying that it matters.
          stevejluke
  • Jeffrey's misguided view of Sony's Reader

    Jeffrey, please consider the possibility that you don't get it. Even in today's day and age there is a market for a device that does one thing, and just one thing, very well.

    Saying that because you can read books on a Palm-based device you don't need a device like Sony's Reader is like saying that because you can do email on a Treo, you don't need a PC. The notion is ridiculous. A device intended for something else provides, at best, a second rate "fallback" reading experience. The Sony Reader provides as enjoyable a reading experience as a book. And that's the point. The device is intended for those who want a no-compromises reading experience, and don't mind the fact that in order to get it they won't be able to use the same device to surf the web, talk on the phone or open cans, dice and slice.

    The benefits of a dedicated reading device or paper-and-ink books are obvious - one device, many books (think school books, Jeffrey), ability to switch books at will, ability to annotate, search, cut/paste, etc. Here's a device that provides the benefits without the problems of earlier eReaders, such as poor screens, slow and flakey performance, lack of content.

    Right now the Sony device is pretty much one-of-a-kind. As the state of the art develops, prices will drop, the technology will support color - and, yes, the ever-cautious publishers will realize that this model has finally come into its own and the content floodgates will open. In the meantime, aficionados of both books and technology will enjoy the Sony Reader: first of a new breed of electronic reading devices.

    Eli Willner
    EliWillner
    • I need to at least see a few things

      Searcheable
      Can surf web on Wi-Fi
      Small Keyboard but bigger than RIM devices.
      Touchpad for scrolling and web navigation.
      Less than $300

      If this can be done, then it will be a success.
      george_ou
      • Hey George..

        "Can surf web on Wi-Fi"

        Can surf the web on Wi-Fi and the battery not die in 15 minutes. :)

        That would be a plus for a PDA.
        ju1ce
    • Not good enough

      Your point is good, a dedicated device is always going to perform
      in a superior manner to a device that tries to be a jack of all trades.

      The problem is (and that Jeffrey points out) that this device is
      inferior in many ways to a book, and yet you're asked to spend
      $400 more for it. What does it do that's worth an additional $400?
      tic swayback
      • It's the weight

        Books weight to much, and are also slow to ship.

        I am a software developer but like to travel. I need refrence books, and prefere to read paper thank a screen, but can't bring all the books I would like with me because of the weight and bulk. This device solves all my problems. My only worry is that the books I really need won't be avialable in ebook format.

        Also, sometimes I need a new refrence book, but need it, right now! Ebooks books solve that problem.
        ksinton
        • It's the weight +1 - size matters

          The attraction to me is the ability to view and store pdf docs. Like ksinton I have a
          bunch of stuff I need to reference or read during down times. Reading a good
          book from time to time also important. Any of the html books from one of the
          other posts should printable as pdf's and thus readable on the device.

          I do think paying the same price for an ebook on top of the device is pretty stupid
          given all the trees that don't need to die. Having said that I must give Sony credit
          for getting the pdf documents available for reading. Think about it, how many
          websites have content in a pdf for download? In my world it is a lot. User manuals,
          tech notes, installation guides, most government form instructions. I just did a
          search for .pdf?s on my machine and came up with 1352.

          A ream of 20lb copier paper weighs in at 5 lbs. Let?s just be eco friendly and
          double side the docs so we have 1000 pages for 5 lbs. My largest five pdf?s are
          easily over 1000 pages. I can store way more than those 5 on this thing and it
          weighs in at 9 oz. Oh yeah 1/2 inch thick and smaller than the notebook that
          holds the ream.
          John Kelser
    • Not the only one

      Eli,

      Sony is neither the only one nor the first. Visit www.irextechnologies.com/home
      At more than twice the price of the Ereader from Sony, certainly not a bargain, but more refined and cooler.
      aleizabar
  • Sony -- stick to TV's ...

    Arguably, Sony makes the best TVs in the world but they kind of remind me of the telcos. There is all this potential but their outdated business model leaves them floundering. Remember BetaMax? MiniDisks? Digital Audio Tape? They just don't get it!

    I am an avid fan of eReader.com and almost always prefer to carry a small lightweight Palm device instead of several paperback books. Even the copyright issues are easily managed with the eReader model. Since the book must be unlocked by entering one's credit card number, anything more than casual pilfering is impossible.

    So, you can spend $300 to $400 on a Sony device dedicated to reading DRM-controlled ebooks or you can download a FREE e-book reader from eReader.com and put it on any number of devices beginning with full-function PDAs (costing as little as $99) including your favorite Windows or Macintosh, and even some cell phones. What would YOU choose?

    Remember BetaMax? MiniDisks? Digital Audio Tape?
    M Wagner
    • Never Saw a PDA under $400 with a 7" screen..

      Seems to me that there is some hidden market out there where some one can buy a PDA/Tablet with 7" screen for under $400!!! WOW....please tell me where I can get one!!!

      Let's be serious guys. Most PDA's under $400 have a screen under 5" (about half the area of a 7" screen which is the approximate size of the Sony Reader)

      When I read a book, on paper or screen, I hate to squint. The bigger the better.

      From my research I don't think one can purchase PDA/Tablet with a long battery life, 7" plus screen, and a price tag under $900. That means I am paying $500 for WiFi, to run applications, email, etc. ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE WHAT I READ A BOOK TO GET AWAY FROM!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Use your brain for something other than planning the creation of your next WoW character and let Sony inovate til their hearts content.
      Ganth2000
      • +1

        Is there a 7 inch screen pda? Does everyone feel they must fit in a pocket?
        John Kelser
  • Doubt Sony's Ebook Reader Will Succeed

    One thing that content providers for the consumer market should realize, is that their customers hate being placed in a box with all types of restrictions on what they can do with their content. As I?ve said several times before, DRM ain?t gonna work as broadly as many people think! I?ve tried using DRM protected content using MS ebook reader, and I trashed the content for all the headaches it caused. I now restrict myself to copying the contents of web pages to Word, and using MS? Word add on to create ebooks that I read in MS? ebook reader. There is no copyright issues with the content I use to create ebooks. I really, really, really, really hate protected content! It is extremely irritating! I recently bought a media center PC, and I was about to give up the Media Center video functionality because of the .dvr-ms copy protection file format that is used by the application. Fortunately there are products on the web that allows you to get around the restrictions of the file format, so I decided to stick with it.

    As I?ve said before, content providers need to create content and business models around the principle that users should be allowed to use their content privately any way they feel fit. Anti-piracy measures should not impact the ability of the users to use their content freely. In light of this, ebook publishers should consider options such as releasing their content with ads, watermarking their content, and making their content easy to obtain.

    Regarding selling single purpose devices: the iPod has incorporated video, and there are attachments that extend the functionality of the device a number of ways. The PDA is merging with the cell phone; the PC is taking on ever more new roles. The computer and related industries like multifunction devices because they are a better value, and have a host of other advantages over single purpose devices. For all of the above reasons, I believe there is little chance that Sony?s ebook reader will succeed.
    P. Douglas
  • Palm's eReader is great.

    Readily available titles. Easily downloaded. Permanent bookshelf on the site. I have read 100s of books in the format, and don't want to go back to paper EVER. I am 47 and an avid reader. I don't get Sony.
    raunkilgo@...
    • palm not perfect either

      I also happen to be 47 (since late September), and have hundreds of palm ereader format books. My only gripes with the Palm are: 1) the battery life (won't come close to lasting all the way to Europe while reading); and 2) the screen size leaves my newly-47-year-old eyes screaming for mercy after an hour or so. Plus it gets annoying paging the screen so often.

      Still, the Palm is a nice platform - I think the Sony is a step in the right direction in some ways. Now if they would only make it color and allow me to search and link in a dictionary, I'd be very happy.
      melchioe
    • and a little bit more info...

      Oh, and while I think there are currently more books on eReader, Sony's ebooks.connect.com has at least 10,000 titles (I obviously haven't counted them all, but there is a pretty good selection, and I have not found any of my faves that are available on eReader but not Sony).

      So,
      - there are lots of readily available, popular titles on the Sony offering
      - there is a permanent bookshelf on the Sony site too
      - downloads are easily as fast as eReader

      I am also impressed that I can share ebooks with my wife without having to re-enter the credit card number on all palms reading the books.

      I agree wholeheartedly that I don't want to go back to paper - I'm also an avid reader (actually, compulsive might be a better description:)).
      melchioe
  • What an amazingly short-sighted post

    Is this entire post solely based on the sonystyle link with limited information?
    dannydee