Sony launched two new e-readers, including one that hits the $199 price point and could bring e-books to the masses. Yet Sony is facing stiff competition from Amazon's Kindle, Plastic Logic (in 2010) and a rapidly expanding field of competitors.
We spoke to Brennan Mullin, vice president of Sony Electronics’ audio and digital imaging division, about the road ahead for the company on the e-reader front.
On the $199 price point, I noted that it was interesting that Sony is going smaller screen with its Pocket as Amazon is going larger with the Kindle DX. Mullin noted that Sony is looking to expand the market to the masses with an inexpensive device that will fit in your pocket:
"Our themes are that we want to make readers and content the most open, available and affordable. Now there's a device for someone on a budget---$199 is an important price point that makes digital reading available to a wider audience. Until now (the market) has been for early adopters."
On Sony's retail distribution heft, Mullin said the strategy is to get people to try its e-reader in the aisles of Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy (among other stores). Mullin said:
"We want to make them available wherever consumers shop. We want them to put the books in their hands and try it. Some people are dubious and putting the devices in their hands allows for trial."
On the need for improvement, Mullin said that Sony is making tweaks based on user feedback. One complaint about the 700 model of Sony's Reader was that the screen had too much glare and ambient light. The new Touch fixes that problem.
Speaking of improvements where's the Wi-Fi? Sony's latest e-readers, like the ones before them, need to be tethered to a PC for downloading. Compared to the ease of the Kindle, Sony will need a wireless answer. Mullin said:
The wireless products are developing. It is coming separately. It's an important feature.
Mullin didn't disclose whether Sony's future e-readers would have 3G and/or Wi-Fi support. He'd only say that wireless technology is coming.
Does Sony need a partnership with other e-book stores? Mullin said Sony's plan is to support multiple stores and be wherever consumers buy and use books. Sony sees beyond its SonyStyle.com stores to libraries and other outlets. However, Sony's store supports its own format while Google features PDFs and e-books on the ePub standard. Mullin said Sony will support them all. "Sony Reader supports ePub and plenty of stores support that format," said Mullin. "We're agnostic and encourage the bookstores in the market to provide content in an open format."
On bigger screens and the B2B opportunity, Mullin said Sony had "no plans bigger screens today." He was more upbeat on the vertical industry potential. Mullin said that education is a market that Sony is exploring and there's a lot of potential in the medical industry.
Where are the color screens? Mullin said that color will be very important for B2B applications, but "it's also important that it's done well." In a nutshell, there's a tradeoff between color and readability.
"When color is brought to market it has to be brought in a way that meets consumer expectations. There's a tradeoff between readability and color. It's also a tradeoff we're not willing to make at this point."