Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sony Reader PRS-700: Part Three

Picking up from Part Two.

The Sony Reader's original incarnation was in Japan, as the Librie.

Now you know where Amazon got some of its abominable Kindle ideas from.

Remember, though, that Japan's books are basically printed backwards from ours, so the cover flap hangs onto the right side of the Librie, not the left:

Contrast with the Sony Reader we have known here in the U.S., in terms of affixing the cover:

But that's not the only difference.

The Librie used only Memory Stick for storage. And the eBooks and eMags people could buy -- at very, very low prices -- were basically rentals. They expired -- disappeared -- after only sixty days. Sony basically modeled the entire reading infrastructure like a video-rental scheme.

Can you say FAIL? That's what it did in Japan.

Unlike Japan, America already had a vibrant eBook marketplace, thanks to pioneers such as Fictionwise and Peanut Press (now eReader, and owned by Fictionwise), which saw PDAs (principally the PalmPilot) as a conduit for eBook sales.

There had been prior attempts to launch dedicated eBook readers in America, but they too failed.

What made Sony's entry into the marketplace remarkable was the paper-like eInk display, which only drew power during page turns, offered a higher-contrast reading experience, and a larger screen.

Sony America basically said to Japan, "Let us try that here. But we want to do it our way."

The result was the original Sony Reader PRS-500, which I wrote about in four parts.

What people seem to still miss about it:

- it allowed the use of Secure Digital cards. This was an amazing concession from Sony, which stubbornly clung to Memory Stick for its PalmOS line of CLIE PDAs.

- it could read text, RTF, and PDF files from the start. So it was already "open."

- it was designed to be book-like. This initially confused people who were used to PDAs and prior eBook devices.

Unfortunately, Sony's abrupt exit from the CLIE line of PDAs left a sour taste in the mouths of millions. It only compounded Sony's prior defeat in the VCR wars, where it was trounced by the superior marketing of VHS. This shadow fell over the introduction of the Sony Reader and many people wouldn't touch it because of a perception that Sony would eventually abandon it.

Many people were surprised when Sony released its second-generation Sony Reader, the PRS-505. I was also surprised.

In the year(!) since, I even went so far as to declare all eInk eBook reading devices dead.

So why have I continued to keep up with the Sony Reader? And why my renewed interest lately?

Call me mad, but there's something about it that's gotten under my skin and can't be removed.

Maybe it's because it focuses on books. Just like those silly people who insist eBooks can "never" take the place of the "smell and feel" of a printed book, there's something in me that just as idiotically feels that, for example, an iPhone or even an iPod Touchbook can't take the place of the Sony Reader. The entire concept of not using electricity while reading a page and not being distracted by the Internet appeals to me. Plus, with its leather-like cover and perfect device size, it just screams, "Book! Book! Book!"

And Sony has shown a seriousness about supporting it -- even before the PRS-700 announcement -- by giving it the ability to do ePub files (which, aside from supporting an eBook file standard the dying dinosaurs of print have rallied around, also meant being able to borrow eBooks for free from public libraries). Sony also offered early buyers of the 500 a $100 trade-in discount towards the 505 and its ePub capability. Plus there was the recent introductions of the 505 into England and France and pre-announcements of it coming next year to both Germany and the Netherlands.

Then came the PRS-700: touchscreen, sidelighting, stylus, a huge leap in software, etc.

The Sony Reader is here to stay and doesn't intend to go away in face of the abominable Kindle.

This brings us to today and my conclusions about what what I saw and heard on October 2nd.

I can't overemphasize the new software the PRS-700 will have. It uses eInk in revolutionary ways. But it's not just that. That alone would be breathtaking. What the software points towards is a future when eBook readers will have full-color screens.

This past weekend, I was in J&R. I made it a point to go see that OLED TV Sony's Howard Stringer has bragged and bragged about.

It's no brag!

You have to see it for yourself. Color, contrast, brightness, and viewing angle just shame every other television on sale.

That's a side view. The screen really is shockingly-thin. (Of course, that's a bit of a gimmick, isn't it? If you add the electronics that are separated into the base to make it wall-hanging, there goes the thinness, right?) Now, what happens when Sony finally nails the production run of OLED screens? Would a six-inch one finds its way into a future model of Sony Reader? It'd probably be expensive as all hell, but that'd be only for the first model (targeted to businesses and publishing professionals). Prices would eventually drop.

Let me say one more thing about that Sony OLED TV that pertains expressly to eBooks: it would make eBooks on par with high-quality full-color printing that's now available. In fact, it'd be higher quality than what we see in weeklies such as Time and Newsweek. We're talking high-quality full-color Japanese magazine printing (which, if you haven't seen that, you should!).

With the new software the PRS-700 has, it's been made future-ready.

Just imagine full-color eComics. Imagine electronic editions of current magazines downloaded to a color Sony Reader. It's poised for that day.

This amount of foresight is another indication of Sony's seriousness towards eBooks and shouldn't be cavalierly dismissed.

I would have liked to have been there in the planning sessions for the PRS-700. How was the touchscreen idea introduced? Was it always planned or was it a reaction to the iPhone and a move by Sony to pre-empt an iPod Touchbook? There must have been some mild gnashing of teeth when Plastic Logic was the first to show an eInk touchscreen! (Unlike the Plastic Logic device, the new Sony Reader has a Zoom In feature.) The Sony Reader can be considered a mass-market version of Plastic Logic. (Or, the Plastic Logic can be considered a half-baked Sony Reader for a very small, and very niche, market. Good luck proofing that slideshow in bed, Mr. Suit! No sidelight for you!)

Some random notes:

Steve Haber in a little-known but official Sony podcast stated that "hundreds of thousands" of the Sony Reader have been sold and that the eBook Store has done "millions of downloads." In person, I tried to nail him down to a number, citing that "hundreds" of thousands has as its minimum the plural two hundred thousand. But Haber is a tough customer. He wouldn't give me a number. But that's how Sony sometimes operates. I want Sony to issue a number to deflate the nonsensical numbers thrown about for the abominable Kindle. I want to see Sony tell Amazon, "This is what we've sold. Now put up or shut up!"

Another thing Haber mentioned in the podcast is that eventually all download services level-out to the same offerings. How iTunes first had one million songs, then another service did, then iTunes went to five million, and now most services all have the same download inventory. I argued that Sony shouldn't think like that. Sony must go after exclusives, just as Amazon has for the Kindle. Haber said his statement was marketese. The only concession I could get out of him was "Sony is talking to publishers." And then came the PRS-700 and five dying dinosaur print publishers were there in the room too, to show support.

That's a critical thing, I think, those publishers being there. Amazon has already acted against its best interests with print publishers. The Sony Reader gives them the ability to fight back against an Amazon monopoly (more about this shortly). And since the dying dinosaurs of print have finally seemed to standardize on one file format -- ePub -- for sales to the general public, Amazon will feel pressure to drop its current file format lock-in or remain its own island (like, say, Alcatraz).

In the introduction presentation, Haber specifically mentioned the PRS-700's lack of wireless. Eerily echoing a statement once made by Palm Computing -- "Color is very important to Palm -- color done right." -- Haber stated that wireless was important for the Sony Reader but it won't be added, paraphrased, "until we can do it right." It will be "an open platform" (that one is a direct quote).

I'm not going to address the kind of software that would be necessary to accommodate wireless. The abominable Kindle uses a conventional web browser (termed experimental by Amazon). That might or might not be the way the Sony Reader develops. But the essential thing to consider is this: Upcoming wireless for the Sony Reader will not lock you into one store for eBook purchasing.

This is already the case with the unwireless Sony Reader. It can do ePub. ePub can be bought from any online store. ePub can be had from public libraries. Previously, DRMed eBooks for the Sony Reader were restricted to purchases from Sony's eBook Store. The adoption of ePub has liberated the Sony Reader from Sony's eBook Store. It's already the most open eBook reader out there. Adding wireless to it will essentially make it the first universal eBook reading device.

That kills the possibility of an Amazon monopoly of eBooks.

(I must go off on a side note here to address those who will protest that the Sony Reader can't do eReader or MobiPocket file formats. This is true. But consider that major publishers have embraced ePub. eReader and MobiPocket are formats that will die. Not even the abominable Kindle does Amazon's own MobiPocket format for DRMed ebooks! [For those who didn't know, Amazon owns MobiPocket. And changed that file format for the K, abandoning millions of users.] How long do you think major publishers will support file formats that will increasingly be seen as niche? Small print publishers who never before entered eBooks won't even bother with any format other than ePub. eReader and MobiPocket are dying, Jim. All of you will pay the price for early adoption, though much later than most early adopters. eReader, owned by Fictionwise, might allow format swapping down the road [when that's possible], but Amazon? Good luck!)

What Sony has done is make the Sony Reader truly the iPod of eBooks. Just as the iPod from its introduction could use DRM-free MP3 as well as Apple's DRMed AAC files, the Sony Reader can now use universal ePub (MP3) or Sony's DRMed BBeB (BroadBand eBook, the file format used at the Sony eBook Store).

One concession I was able to extract from Haber is absolutely great news for writers. Sony's eBook Store will eventually be opened for writers who want to do direct publishing. Also coming are the tools to create such eBooks. I listed five things (plus one from a reader) that I believed the Sony Reader must have and Sony must do. Go check that list. Items three and five are being done now. Most of the rest are on their way. This is great progress.

Of course, I'll stop here to harp once again on the need for Macintosh compatibility for Sony's eLibrary software. Print designers love their Macs. So do writers. So do eBook readers. I hope CES in January will bring at least a sneak preview of something to give OS X users hope! (Sony, I know it's tempting to forgo OS X compatibility when wireless is added to the Sony Reader, but don't ask Mac owners to give up the ability to read their eBooks on their machines! This backup feature is crucial in case a Sony Reader is dropped and its screen is broken!)

When it came to Jim Malcolm, Sony's Director of Corporate Marketing for Mobile Lifestyle Products, I brought up the hardware pricing issue.

He saw this poll result:

I've wailed for lower prices. As recently as this week, so has Dear Author.

This is basically what Malcolm told me. The poll results are from those who are tech-savvy early adopters. They already know the price of things and so, of course, would love eBook reading devices to even be as low as five for $20.00. Malcolm claims that Sony's own research shows that hardware price is actually not a factor. Can I argue with their expertise and proprietary, professional research?

Yes. I know. I'm stubborn. Or I'm just an absolute eejit when it comes to real-world marketing, but I can't but help to point once again to the example of Henry Ford and the Model T. Plus, there are the more recent examples of the Commodore-64 and the Asus EeePC.

I pressed the issue, asking what would Sony do if Amazon decided to do the razor-and-blade approach, reversing their current strategy. That is, increase the price of eBooks yet cut the hell out of the price of the abominable Kindle hardware. I think at this point Steve Haber fortuitously showed up, to save Malcolm from an answer. Not only should you never play poker with Haber, you should watch out for him knowing his cue!

The final thing I learned that night was entirely by accident. Yet it was telling. I rode the elevator down with one of the representatives of Penguin Books. I think her name was Molly (being one of my mortal enemies -- a dying dinosaur of print -- I did not ask for a card). It was a real mutual beat-down that lasted a quick two minutes. My snap questions versus her snap answers.

Me: Oh, you work for Penguin. Penguin just gave away some free samples. [Yes, I speak with embedded URLs!]

Molly: Yes.

Me: Does Penguin believe in DRM?

Molly: We're on the fence about that.

Me: What about eBook pricing?

Molly: We believe that eBooks should have the same prices as print.

Me: No no no! People see you're not paying for paper, ink, distribution, or returns. They have to cost less!

Molly: We believe that eBooks should have the same prices as print. Our highest costs are creative.

Me: No they're not! I've seen charts. It's mostly physical costs!

Molly: Our eBooks will contain additional material that's not in the print editions. They'll be enhanced eBooks.

OK, she got me, dammit. She played the eBook As DVD Card.

And what she says is most likely true too. I can't find the link now, and I didn't post about it at the time, but I did come across a description for an eBook from Penguin that listed material exclusive to the eBook version.

That's an interesting sales strategy. I hope it translates into fatter royalty checks for their writers!

Some final notes. With its classy textured black cover, the PRS-700 felt like a church hymnal in my hands. I think with its new features and sleek design, Sony has a real opportunity to sell a ton of them to businesses. And that will greatly expand the eBook market. Because you just know that when the missus sees Mr. Suit using it, she'll become curious and then want one too!

Will I buy one? I want a Sony Reader. But my head is all bollixed now. I love the red 505. But if I were to buy it and strangely discover that I want to read in the dark or in lighting too dim to bring out the eInk contrast, I'd have to spring some $60.00 or so more for the light wedge cover. That puts the total price within exhaling distance of the 700! And the 700 offers not just the built-in sidelighting but the giant leap in software too! So maybe the best thing for me to do is just wait to have the red 505 and 700 together for a fondle face-off in a store. (Yet even now, the more I think about it, I just know the 700 will win. Alas, red!)

For anyone else out there who's been thinking of buying the abominable Kindle: Don't! Don't do that to yourself. Yes, the wireless aspect has an appeal to it, but you're locked into one store, one eBook format, and shut out of public libraries and shut out of the ePub future. Plus, if it breaks, you can't read your eBooks on your desktop in the meantime.

For all of you Macintosh owners: Hold on. I know your aesthetic revulsion to the abominable Kindle. I share it too. I will keep hammering on Sony for your sake! They've already shown their seriousness. I trust it will expand to include OS X too.

The last word goes to Paul Biba of Teleread, who summed it all up in one sentence: "This is the first Reader to have The Sony Touch."

Previously here:

Sony Reader PRS-700: Part One
Sony Reader PRS-700: Part Two

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you've since purchased either the 700 or 505, but unfortunately I think Sony fell on its face with the 700. While the touchscreen and sidelighting are great ideas, the fact that you nearly require the sidelighting to read on the 700 because the contrast of the screen is so low is really disappointing. I understand that this is probably due to the touchscreen, but since the touchscreen is really just a luxury, I'm surprised they sacrificed so much readability for it.

I received a 700 for Valentine's Day and was thrilled - I've wanted a dedicated reader forever, and have been reading e-books for years on everything from a Clie to a Nintendo DSL. After two days, we returned the 700 for the 505. The difference in the readability screen is night and day - so much so that we almost wondered if there was something wrong with the 700, but the floor model exhibits the same issues.

In a nutshell, the 700 was very low contrast (reminded me of a graphing calculator, with dark grey on light grey), looking through the touch-screen killed the "ink on paper" effect and the glare was so bad from the screen that you can see yourself in it, and had to move the reader around to find a good angle. I'm not being picky here - I really, really wanted to like it! - but I found the constant battle with the glare to be annoying and distracting.

Upon turning on the 505 we were floored by the difference in readability - and it was $100 less!

I'm really sorry the 700 wasn't a leap forward. I understand what Sony was trying to do, but unfortunately the 700 should never have made it into production with the issues it has.