Saturday, September 08, 2007

E-Book Wars

Sellers of e-books and the devices necessary to make them as portable as the real thing have found it difficult to carve out much of a niche in the book market for themselves. But one thing that they have going for them is that most of the companies involved back the "open e-book standard," a format embraced by major publishers and the high-tech companies that produce the readers, that makes the e-books readable no matter which e-book reading device is purchased. That means that, as an owner of a Sony e-book reader, I can buy e-books directly from Sony, can shop for better prices from other e-book retailers, and can even find free e-books on the net that I can read using my Sony device.

That's all about to change thanks to the arrogance of one company,, which is on the verge of creating a format war that reminds me of the way that Sony lost the video recorder war to its competitors a couple of decades ago. Sony's beta recorders were the first on the market but were eventually forced from the marketplace by manufacturers of VHS recorders. Now Sony has backed an e-book format with its reader that is about to go under attack by a late entrant into that market place. Are they destined to lose again?

According to Brad Stone
of the New York Times, both Google and Amazon are set to enter the e-book marketplace and Amazon's plan includes marketing its on e-book reader, one that will be more expensive than the current Sony model but will offer wireless downloads and internet connection.
In October, the online retailer will unveil the Kindle, an electronic book reader that has been the subject of industry speculation for a year, according to several people who have tried the device and are familiar with Amazon’s plans. The Kindle will be priced at $400 to $500 and will wirelessly connect to an e-book store on Amazon’s site.

That is a significant advance over older e-book devices, which must be connected to a computer to download books or articles.

Also this fall, Google plans to start charging users for full online access to the digital copies of some books in its database, according to people with knowledge of its plans. Publishers will set the prices for their own books and share the revenue with Google. So far, Google has made only limited excerpts of copyrighted books available to its users.
Hopes for e-books began to revive last year with the introduction of the widely marketed Sony Reader. Sony’s $300 gadget, the size of a trade paperback, has a six-inch screen, enough memory to hold 80 books and a battery that lasts for 7,500 page turns, according to the company. It uses screen display technology from E Ink, a company based in Cambridge, Mass., that emerged from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and creates power-efficient digital screens that uncannily mimic the appearance of paper.

Sony will not say how many it has sold, but the Reader has apparently done well enough that Sony recently increased its advertising for the device in several major American cities.

“Digital readers are not a replacement for a print book; they are a replacement for a stack of print books,” said Ron Hawkins, vice president for portable reader systems at Sony. “That is where we see people, on the go, in the subway and in airports, with our device.”
Several people who have seen the Kindle say this is where the device’s central innovation lies — in its ability to download books and periodicals, and browse the Web, without connecting to a computer. They also say Amazon will pack some free offerings onto the device, like reference books, and offer customers a choice of subscriptions to feeds from major newspapers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the French newspaper Le Monde.

The device also has a keyboard, so its users can take notes when reading or navigate the Web to look something up. A scroll wheel and a progress indicator next to the main screen, will help users navigate Web pages and texts on the device.
Personally, I have to question the wisdom of Amazon's decision to market a device that will cost as much as fifty percent more than the Sony reader already on the market. It's true that the Amazon device offers a few bells and whistles not included with the Sony product, but by offering those extras Amazon is placing itself in direct competition with Apple and its iPhones. That's a losing proposition for any company.

This would all make more business sense to me if Amazon were going to sell e-books that are readable on the already existing readers. No one can compete with Amazon when it comes to price and their entry into the electronic book arena would be sure to drive the price of e-books down to a more reasonable level. That would be good for everyone. Customers would buy more e-books, Amazon would potentially sell millions of them, and Sony and others would sell more of the readers.

I don't think that e-books will ever really replace the old fashioned paper and glue version of books. E-book readers do not take the place of a single book. What they offer is the convenience of being able to carry several hundred books in a coat pocket, a multitude of choice available to travelers and commuters that is otherwise impossible. I use my Sony reader several times a week but I still greatly prefer holding a "real" book in my hands and turning its pages. That will never change.


  1. I gotta say, the Kindle looks awesome. It has exactly the features I would demand in an book reader--a built-in dictionary and the ability to take notes. The wi-fi and web surfing capability are a bonus. Sure it's hideously expensive, but if I was a long-distance commuter or spent a lot of time waiting, it would be a pretty great toy to have.

  2. Thanks for this info and article! Very interesting. I guess what we are moving toward is a laptop computer that is handheld, and the size of a Sony Reader. Or at least that is what this new Amazon gadget makes me think.

  3. I'm a sucker for new technology, Sylvia, and would love to be able to play with one of these things. The biggest drawback that I can see is that there is no color on these things and surfing the web in black and white doesn't appeal to me all that much.

  4. It's going to be interesting to watch the battle between Amazon and Sony progress over the next few months. I do think that you have to throw Apple and its iPhone into the mix, too. This could get expensive for the companies as well as for their customers who bet incorrectly on which technology will become the dominant one.

  5. If they ever made a colour version they'd be able to attack the textbook market. That would really be something. No more lugging heavy books around!

  6. If they can figure out how to do that, they will immediately take over that market. Supposedly, with the black "ink" only it is easier to read the e-books in brighter light than would be the case for color print. I'm sure that someone will figure it out sooner or later. The readers are not "back lit" either because they are going for extended battery life rather than color. They'll solve it so that both are possible, I'm sure.