Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Sony to Take Another Stab at eBooks, This Time in U.S.

BusinessWeek covers along with Engadget and others Sony's second attempt at launching an E Ink-based eBook reader, this time targeted towards U.S. markets and with a solid base of more than 50,000 titles from Simon & Schuster, Random House, and HarperCollins. The new gizmo will offer more popular memory and connectivity options (USB and SD media cards) and will feature both Sony-proprietary ebooks and PDF support. The obvious hope at Sony is that they can replicate the success of Apple's iPods and iTunes store and create a new fashionable gizmo for readers. Likely? Not. The iPod's success was built on an already robust marketplace for downloadable music that had been established by independent and open technologies and numerous experiments with devices. Apple simply packaged it into the most appealing form possible and marketed it like crazy.

While Sony will enjoy strong support from book publishers now ready to take control of their electronic future and actively seeking solutions for electronic marketing, the public as a whole is indifferent to electronic books as media that require a special device. We have iPods for our ears, and the screens of PCs, cell phones, PDAs and other electronic devices for our eyes (and yes, iPods for eyes now, also). What is it about a book that is so unique that it requires a special device to read? This is not to slight the E Ink technology: it's neat stuff that has great promise to deliver paper readability in electronic form. It's more an issue as to whether consumers really want another device that's dedicated to one form of content that's evolving rapidly towards new packaging and production methods. Book publishers need to accept more deeply that they need to do a far better job of popularizing the consumption of books on electronic platforms that users already have in hand - and to adapt packaging that will allow books to flow from platform to platform as easily as a reader shifts a book from the coffee table to their briefcase or handbag.

If publishers do this correctly they may not wind up with the same panache of an iPod in the short term but they will find themselves with a much broader marketplace for their products that will then allow for competitive sources of technology to adapt to the most appropriate platforms. Let's hope that in a few years' time we're reading books on PDAs, cell phones, PCs and any other number of devices equipped with high-readability displays and the ability to swap favorite titles from one device to another with ease - and with customization options that will make individual copies that much more valuable. Somehow I don't think that's what's about to come out the doors from Sony. Oh, well, we can wait.
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