Sony’s Murky eBook Future

Sony's Murky eBook Future

With Amazon’s Kindle 3 and Kindle WiFi selling out, and B&N seeing the nook as their major bright spot, it’s pretty clear that Amazon and B&N are dominating the ebook market. So where’s Sony in the mix? Apparently, not competing at all.

Sony was out at the end of July with this comment to the blog ReadWriteWeb:

“Pricing is one consideration in the dedicated reading device marketplace, but Sony won’t sacrifice the quality and design we’re bringing book lovers to lay claim to the cheapest eReader,” said Phil Lubell, VP of digital reading at Sony Electronics. “Our global customers expect to get the best digital book reading experience and we’re concentrated on delivering that by investing in Sony’s award-winning design and original digital reading enhancements, such as eBook library borrowing and the only full touch screen on the market.”

Reading between the lines it seems like Sony is looking to compete on features and quality, rather than price. Well, that’s not a bad strategy, except that Sony historically tends to focus on hardware over content, and that’s pretty much the antithesis of where the ebook market has headed. Only one of Sony’s devices even has wireless networking, and it is priced a full $50-$60 over comparable Nook and Kindle 3G devices and a whopping $100-$110 over their wifi counterparts. Plus Sony doesn’t have the benefit that B&N and Amazon do of being able to tie into traditional book buyers and lure them to the ebook side. Amazingly, Sony was first to market with major, mainstream ebook readers, so where did they go wrong?


As I said above, only one Sony model offers any wireless networking. At the price points where their competitors are offering onboard, dead simple ebook purchasing, Sony is offering a smaller screen (5″ instead of 6″), with almost no features (no dictionary, annotation options, etc). So if you’re a buyer going totally on specs alone, the low-end Sony Pocket Edition fails on-screen size and features.

What about the mid-range Sony Touch? Well, it’s a 6-inch eInk touchscreen, so there’s a positive for it. But again, no wireless, AND it’s going to run you either the same as a nook 3G, $10 more than the Amazon Kindle 3G, and it’s just cruel to compare it to the Wifi model pricing.

The Daily Edition was announced with great fanfare but wound up being an also-ran. To be fair, it was plagued with delays that pushed the release date past the lucrative Christmas season, but even since then it has lived in the Kindle and nook’s shadows. Hardware-wise, it’s actually a great device, with a 7-inch touchscreen. It’s on software that it really gets creamed, but that leads us into the second part of where Sony has failed…


Think of the most unique features of the Amazon Kindle ecosystem. Chances are “whispersync” is towards the top of that list. It’s not just that Amazon has nearly perfected sync across ebook readers and smartphones, it’s that Amazon has a presence on almost every possible platform you could use to read a book. B&N may not have a robust sync system, but they too offer several platform options. If you buy a book from the Sony Store, you’re stuck reading it…on your Sony. Yes, you can fire up the Sony software on your computer and read it there, but Sony really missed the boat by ignoring the smartphone market. Throwing together even a basic “Sony Reader” app for the iPhone would have at least given them a foothold on a very lucrative ebook platform.

This is purely anecdotal, but I have a coworker who tried and loved the Sony Pocket Edition. In the end, he opted not to keep it, in part because there were no easy options to sync it with his iPhone. I pointed out he could buy books from Kobo instead of Sony, but even that didn’t solve the sync issue, and in the end, he couldn’t justify keeping it. Ever since then, whenever we discuss ebooks he mentions how much he loved that Sony Pocket Edition, and “If only Sony had an iPhone app…”

Surprisingly, Sony’s experience in music hasn’t translated well over to ebooks. Both B&N and Amazon have been fairly aggressive about announcing exclusive deals, but Sony is remarkably quiet in comparison. While they are at a disadvantage by being a pure ebook retailer, instead of a mix of paper and ebooks like B&N and Amazon, they don’t push their ebooks at all. There’s some minor mention of library ebook compatibility around their site, but good luck finding out more details! Sony should be leading with that on their main page, with links to Overdrive’s site and explanations of how to check out library books for your Sony device. Instead, they’re losing out on mindshare and marketshare to B&N and Amazon and their aggressive pushing of content over hardware.


This is the final nail in the Sony coffin. My local Target carries the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader line. Tonight I walked past their displays. The Kindle was on display on an end cap facing cameras and camcorders. Anyone who walked into the electronics section would see it immediately. The Sony Readers were right around the corner but smack behind a support pole. It was a nasty location, totally unappealing, and even standing in front of the display you could barely make out the devices with the giant pole blocking them. Best Buy carries both the nook and the Sony Reader, but only the nook gets a display right on the main aisle. Again, you need to go hunting if you want to find the Sony Reader display, but simply wandering around you’ll find the nooks.

Sony is a huge electronics company. With all the business they no doubt do with Best Buy and Target, they can’t request or push for better display locations? Or do they just not care about their ebook readers enough?

Worst of all, Sony had a foothold at Borders long before Kobo did. Why did Borders team up with Kobo to power their eBookstore when they already had a several year’s long relationship with Sony? I don’t presume to know what their business relationship was, or is, but if Sony didn’t push as hard as humanly possible to co-brand their store with Borders they made a huge error in judgment. Sony needs a strong content partner, Borders needs a strong and compelling ebook reader. This would have been a brilliant match for both parties.

The Future

I don’t know where Sony is headed. They certainly may carve out a niche for a while, since they support Adobe DRM and library books. But slowly, the prices are coming way down on non-wireless readers that offer the same feature set, and the market for unconnected readers isn’t that big anymore. Plus sticking their heads in the sand, pretending everything is ok, and claiming they prefer to compete on quality hardware isn’t going to win the ebook wars. It’s going to make them a high-profile victim.

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

6 Comments on "Sony’s Murky eBook Future"

  1. I bought a Sony Reader Touch about a month ago, and it was primarily on the feature that none of the other readers I strongly considered (Kindle and Nook) had: the ability to write notes on the screen. Because I am a voice artist trying to cut down on the amount of paper I consume with scripts, the ability to mark up scripts (as well as the east import of multiple file types) made the Touch the best choice for me, at least in the short term.

    I don’t argue with the conclusion however, that Sony may be left in the dust. They have a historic aversion to lowering prices on their gear, and they are traditionally poor at getting their software up to par for interfacing with their gadgets (all one has to do is look at the terrible Sonic Stage for the late lamented MiniDisc). Whispersync and its kind are becoming the de facto standard for readers, and Sony’s Daily Edition is both overpriced and late to the game. As far as positioning in various outlets, I have seen Sony’s Readers on endcaps and right at the entrance in multiple Best Buys in North Carolina, Illinois and Indiana, so I’m not sure that the placement problem is at the corporate level rather than the local store management level.

    It takes Sony a long time to acknowledge its mistakes. Playstation 3 initial pricing (where there was a similar “quality hardware” argument), PSPGo failure (still not publicly acknowledged; they only sold 770 of them last month in JAPAN), and MiniDisc is all part of it. But big ships take a long time to turn. Unfortunately, by the time this one does turn, it will already have been impaled on the iceberg of the Kindle.

  2. Good point on the notes on screen…that is a nice benefit of the Sony Touch, but it still puts them in somewhat of a niche market. If they really ran with that aspect of the devices they could carve out a sustainable spot, but they’re so all over the place I doubt they will.

    And it’s so true about the Playstation/PSP stuff…I know Mike Anderson (our gaming guru here) has said the same thing. Amazing how Sony can be so successful and yet so dumb at the same time.

  3. It seems a lot longer ago, but back in March of ’07, I reviewed the Reader ( That gave Sony an 8-month jump on the Kindle; an eternity in the tech world. It’s a shame that they never were able to parlay their lead into product improvements/price drops/publisher deals/etc.

    This announcement sounds a lot to me like a company recognizing they got their rears handed to them, and are heading back to the drawing board for a retrenchment. I wouldn’t count Sony out in this market–Japanese companies tend to keep coming back and back until they have something that competes. Sony doesn’t have a very good track record with this, though–Betamax and the PSP are two that come to mind. But you never know.

  4. RT @GearDiarySite: Sony’s Murky eBook Future

  5. I feel like Sony didn’t really commit to the eReader world, and did sit on their laurels as a first mover. Considering their previous determination to stay in technology until is succeeds (Blu-ray, PS3) or fails (MiniDisc), I wouldn’t be surprised if they do go back to the drawing board and make some serious improvements to their eReader line. I agree with Carly that they should have pursued a partnership with Borders, whose eBooks are already compatible with the Sony platform, rather than try and develop their own store, which is sorely lacking in content. The fact that Borders is pushing their own reader now as well as multiplatform reader software pushes Sony even farther to the margins.

    My own use of the Reader Touch may only last until I can afford an iPad (which itself may be a long time). I hope that they can find a way to extend the useful life of the platform.

  6. Blog previously ate my post earlier, but to note three things:

    1) Sony is… schizophrenic as a company. They deployed the Blu-Ray standard but left out some features on the early PS3 revisions which were available in their stand-alone Blu-Ray players to start (IIRC, it didn’t have the online capability); they have a music division, but couldn’t figure out how to correctly integrate it with their music player division (the early software was horrible, and they didn’t do digital music for YEARS after Apple stole their lunch with iTunes. They have a movie division, but couldn’t leverage it with the PlayStation Network for years with video-on-demand or digital video sales… despite having sold music videos for years on PSN. So the way their eReader division’s unsupported is less unexpected than it is tragic.

    2) Sony doesn’t do software very well. With hardware, they feel that the hardware should be more expensive than the competitions even if it doesn’t have the same features. Or sometimes the same reliability. And sometimes the software for the hardware is the issue… which is why there were some patches for the PS3 which needed to be patched again to work right. As GWIII points out, Sonic Stage was a horrible program – and its replacement Sony Connect was just as bad. Sony is okay with hardware (I won’t even talk about the two music players I had die on me by Sony about two weeks after the year-long manufacturer warranty ran out, and I had to replace the replacement about two weeks after THAT due to a different failure), but… well, software’s a problem for them, and the eReader software’s no different, both with how you connect to the PC to sync as well as what’s on the reader (it tends to crash a lot, from what I’ve seen, and handles ePub poorly). The PSPgo is also not something I care to mention, but falls into the software area when it comes to buying and uploading games… which existed even when they started selling games online originally.

    3) Sony is all about proprietary software and standards, believing they’re the king of hardware and software. Remember that they didn’t sell readers with ePub support until 2009, or about four to five years after they started producing them and about two years after ePub began to see support. They see this proprietary nature as either a way to justify high prices, or to try to set the standard that everyone else pays them major licensing fees to follow. They may ONCE have been competition for the Kindle (when nook didn’t exist, when AluraTek and everyone else didn’t have ePub-capable readers, when MobiPocket was still independent, and before Apple got into the ebook game)… but no longer. And, as par for the course, Sony doesn’t seem to recognize that market conditions have changed from ten years back when Sony was indeed king of various markets, save for the portable music player market where they still won’t acknowledge that they failed. MD’s versus MP3 players at double the latter’s price was… well, the market has spoken on that, although Sony’s still not listening.

    Sony’s touchscreen on the PRS-600 and the PRS-700 was a nice ‘touch’… but it didn’t justify the high prices to start, especially given the battery life on both units is definitely lower than the always-connected Kindles. But they seem uninterested in anything but hardware, which means that when software or electronic content is king… well, they’re getting left behind. There’s also the ‘they leave behind support for devices unless it’s to stop piracy’ issue – look at the last time any firmware updates came out for any of their readers. PDF support’s still notoriously bad due to what appears to be an older version of ADE running on the Sony Reader platform, but they haven’t changed it despite newer versions of ADE existing which supposedly handle PDF files better. Also, they seemed to let the publishers set the price in the Reader store, which meant that there was no benefit to shopping Sony – especially not when you could buy an ePub book from anyone else for half the price.

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