During its previously scheduled product launch of the Sony Reader Pocket ($199) and Touch ($299) Editions today, Sony dropped its would-be Kindle-killer on the market, a $399 AT&T 3G-enabled Reader called “Daily Edition” that will ship in time for Christmas, if an e-book reader is on your last-minute shopping list. This Christmas, it may very well be.
Does 7-inch Daily Edition, which sells for $100 more than the 6-inch Kindle 2, bring enough oomph to the market to make it a must-have for the holidays? The answer will depend entirely upon whether Sony’s move to ePub format and close embrace of Google Books, which can be downloaded free through its online bookstore, will tip the buyer’s decision in favor of Sony. While it is a 3G-enabled reader, comparable to the Kindle and its WhisperNet service provided by Sprint, the Sony Daily Edition will not allow Web browsing, which the Kindle does, according to various sources, notably Publishers Weekly.
The Sony press release suggests that there might be an upgrade path to full Web connectivity: “There are no monthly fees or transaction charges for the basic wireless connectivity and users still have the option to side load personal documents or content from other compatible sites via USB.” I have queried Sony PR about what “basic wireless connectivity” means and whether there will be options for additional service. It isn’t entirely clear that Google Books will be downloadable over the air or only via PC download—since there is no revenue to support 3G downloads, this needs to be clarified.
Unlike the Kindle, the Sony Daily Edition offers handwritten note entry (stylus included with the system) and built-in links to local libraries, which can “loan” electronic copies for up to 28 days through the Overdrive.com library collections service. A social network for discussing literary. And the devices will be available at physical retail outlets, including Best Buy and WalMart, making it easier to try than the Kindle.
Amazon is prepared to counter the perceived accessibility of Sony’s ePub strategy by both opening the Kindle readers to ePub and making its proprietary format readable on a wider range of devices. Sony may have the cheapest e-reader with the $199 Pocket Edition (sans wireless connectivity), but this still looks like a fight that is going to be waged on Amazon’s terms.
Sony Readers will offer only ePub-formatted books through its eBook online store and devices, dumping its BBeB proprietary format, according to The New York Times. This is an important step toward compatibility between e-reader devices, one that will challenge Amazon’s dominance in e-books to date, because Kindle will soon be markedly separate from Sony, Plastic Logic and other devices that support ePub. HarperCollins and Random House have signed on to the Sony ePub initiative. HarperCollins already offers ePub books.
ePub isn’t the ultimate solution to the question of an e-book standard, but it does solve the basic problem of making books readable across multiple devices. As Gartner analyst Allen Wiener told the Times: “If you see some Adobe executive up on stage with Steve Jobs when they announce the tablet, at that point Amazon has a lot to worry about.” Adobe Systems developed ePub as an “open” alternative to other e-book formats, however it is also pushing its PDF format as a solution for presenting formatted documents—Amazon promotes PDF formatted books for the Kindle DX. There’s no absence of a relationship between the two companies. ePub can still be made into a proprietary format by developers who add, for example, a proprietary DRM (in contrast to its built-in DRM) or display extensions to the basic text display capabilities of ePub.
Amazon can solve this problem by updating its existing Kindles and adding ePub support to new units, something I believe is already on the calendar. Jeff Bezos only has to make an announcement that Kindle supports ePub, which he has foreshadowed, to prevent a user migration. Amazon can retain its lead by adding ePub versions to its store, allowing buyers to download ePub versions.
So, while it is to Sony’s credit that it is leading the way toward document portability, the initiative still lies with Amazon.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Sony will introduce new versions of its Reader and lower the price of e-books in its store to match the prices at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. The devices, the PRS-300 and PRS-600, as well as their respective prices, $199 and $299, were “leaked” last week, including the pricing (ZD Net’s Larry Dignan has a good summary about the new readers). Sony’s falling into line with pricing of e-book titles is the news here.
Now, what’s got me wondering here is how all the would-be major vendors of e-book readers are competing on price and only price, for both the hardware and content, what’s the opportunity to differentiate? At this point, only connectivity, which Amazon has nailed with the WhisperNet technology it currently offers. Plastic Logic will have a Sprint-enabled WAN service, too, but Sony’s still in the wilderness with its dock-to-sync e-readers—however, The Bookseller reports that Sony is planning a Wi-Fi-enabled Reader for European release this fall.
If connectivity is the only differentiator, the opportunity to extend competitive advantage lies in one of two directions:
- The iTunes Model—Make a proprietary system so darned convenient that the customer hopefully forgets about the DRM and other downsides, or;
- The Rich Format Model—Take an open format for e-books and begin adding to it, putting annotation and other “social” features into the titles to begin to add value.
No device succeeds without adding value to the experience its competitors provide. Amazon remains the standard setter in the e-reader business. No one wants to go into the uncharted waters of open and “social” formats where the real wealth lies.