Sony’s Murky eBook Future

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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?

Hardware:

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…

Software/Content:

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.

Marketing:

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

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