Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Sony Tries to Re-Kindle eBook Interest with a New Reader

I've been waiting so long for eBooks to take off that it's begining to feel like a scene from a comedy sketch or an existential play, but current sales trends offer some moderate optimism that the medium may be building steam. While USD 8 million for eBooks sales in July is still a rounding error for the book trade as a whole it's double what it was a year ago, and showing strong movement towards cracking USD 100 million in eBook sales next year. Helping along eBooks will be improving players such as Sony's new PRS-505 platform, which Engadget indicates is
now available at a USD 299 sticker price.

The 505 features improved paper-like image resolution from eInk technology and perhaps most importantly a USB port to allow uploads and downloads between the reader and one's PC - at last simplifying the process to snatching content off the Web and transferrring it to the reader. That content can include MP3 files, but with ultra-low power consumption - you could go weeks between needing extra juice for this unit - the main appeal is to the monochrome text world of readers.

Yet for all of the niceties added to this improved model it's still a far cry away from what is likely to be adopted as a mass-market device for book consumption. One significant barrier remains the price point - with communications companies subsidizing the cost of mobile phones heavily to promote usage, why hasn't the book industry considered the same for devices that would promote eBook growth? The answer comes in part from the tradition of booksellers working with balkanized networks of distributors - they're comfortable with retailers who want to lock in their own comfy margins with book products, each with their own quirks and formats.

In the process of helping their vendors remain proprietary, though, the industry is slipping away rapidly from any real opportunities for eBooks to take off in a big way any time soon. Amazon's Kindle platform, slated for a launch (of sorts) this month, will do hardly better than Sony in making people love yet another device to clutter their world - and in fact may do worse, given the device's positively retro look: think of a cross between an IBM PCjr and an early Star Trek Tricorder. Then again, for those attached to print perhaps this is flashy enough.

The real problem with eBook readers lies with their inability to provide any sort of useful reading experience beyond simple book pages. With Adobe PDFs still the widely used standard for premium eBook materials, too many publishers are trying to format information with print-like rendition in mind and leaving eBook readers to try to figure out how to scroll through or otherwise make sense of materials not well adapted for the relatively low resolution of eBook displays. There's a long ways to go before we can even begin to think of this medium as truly "electronic paper."

Mobile devices such as phones are the real portable eBook and eMagazine platform of choice, but even here displays can disappoint. I was watching an iPhone enthusiast demonstrate recently how "easy" it was to read a magazine through the slick new device - a magazine that was formatted for print reading and utterly unnavigable on the tiny iPhone screen. Publishers born of the print world just cannot, cannot give up the notion that print-formatted materials will work great on anything that's smaller than their original format.

With all this said, there may be a niche for eBook readers amongst people who want to make sure that they have something to grab when their mobile phone needs a recharge. In the meantime eBooks are thriving on phones and in online venues where printable formatting is considered a plus. eBooks will do particularly well as materials that can encourage previewing a title that someone would like to consider for on-demand printing. But still, even at this highly developed stage in the electronic publishing era, it's hard for most publishers and technologist to think of books as anything other than a relic that will be accomodated reluctantly by new technologies. This leaves plenty of room for people to reinvent what a book really is - but that's for another post, perhaps.
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