Today, there is greater awareness and interest in ebooks and ebook readers than ever before. There are now about 20 dedicated readers on the market and new product announcements or enhancements are being made each month. The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) recently released data on U.S. ebook sales. In the first 2 quarters of 2009, sales grew from $25.8 million to $37.6 million; while just 1 year ago the sales were forecast to be $11.6 million (www.idpf.org/doc_library/industrystats.htm). Earlier this month, Sony made two important announcements: Two new ebook Readers and the adoption of EPUB, the open ebook format.
EPUB Open Ebook Standard Support
In 2007, IDPF officially adopted EPUB as the new standard, allowing for the transfer of information from one device or system to another. Steve Haber, president of Sony's Digital Reading Business Division notes that, "Our goal is to expand the market and provide open access to what consumers want to read when they want to read it-whether you buy, borrow, or get it for free." Sony will incorporate EPUB into its eBook Library software 3.0, which supports both PCs and Macs. The new version eases the transfer and reading of Adobe PDF (with reflow capability), Microsoft Word, BBeB, or other text-file formats on Sony Readers, Apple iPhones, Google Android devices, and other systems. Sony is also moving this capability beyond U.S. borders into developing markets in Canada and the U.K.
Books from Google Books are available in EPUB format and are optimized for Sony Readers using Sony's free eBook Library software, opening up easy access to more than 1 million free, public domain titles. "A world of proprietary formats and DRMs creates silos and limits overall market growth," Haber notes. "Consumers should not have to worry about which device works with which store. With a common format and common content protection solution (DRM), they will be able to shop around for the content they want regardless of where they get it or what device they use."
"Sony's adoption of EPUB is a smart strategy for them, because creating another proprietary format is pointless," says Michael Norris, senior analyst for trade books at Simba Information. "It's like selling a bookcase that you can't put some books in. It's also Sony's way of saying ‘We're not in favor of a closed-loop system like Amazon.'"
Norris, however, also worries about the impact of free content on the future of publishing. "I also worry like hell about the extent the availability of free electronic books will condition consumers to exclusively seek out free content or balk at content that is fairly priced."
Two New Ebook Readers Introduced
Thinner, smaller, and lighter than past editions, the new $299.99 Sony Reader Touch Edition (PRS-600) will allow you to store and access hundreds of books using a combination of internal memory and expandable memory-from any source. A smaller version, the new Reader Pocket Edition (PRS-300) provides a 5" screen in a smaller form factor at the lower price of $199. Sony calls this "the most affordable dedicated reading device on the market." The two are intended to replace the current PRS-700 and PRS-505 units.
Users can load books, music, or even pictures from their computers to these new Readers as well. The units will allow users to use the Sony system to check out ebooks from public libraries for viewing. Pricing of new best-sellers from the Sony eBook Store will now be available for $9.99, matching Amazon's pricing.
Powering up the battery or connecting to other systems is done easily using the USB port and the system supports a wide variety of operating systems-Mac OS, Microsoft Windows Vista and XP, and Linux. You can also play back MP3 and unsecured AAC audio files and view BMP/JPEG/GIF/PNG picture files on the Reader. The smaller size, open platform, and the availability of a protective sleeve to protect the screen surface are all market advantages for Sony in the growing market for ebook products.
In the Touch Reader, navigation is handled by an intuitive 6" touchscreen display that lets users "turn pages with the swipe of a finger," or using a stylus for freehand highlighting and annotation. The system is menu-driven for faster, more intuitive navigation, highlighting, note-taking, and page-turning. A built-in Oxford American English Dictionary adds a solid reference source to the reader.
Any handwritten drawings or text memos are kept independent of any book stored in the Reader -which should prevent any DRM issues similar to those that famously arose when Amazon removed personal files along with George Orwell books over copyright concerns from users' Kindles without prior warning or permission.
However, organization schemes on an ebook reader are still an issue with the Sony unit. It will be interesting to see how the ability to easily port information back and forth to your computer impacts this. Customer support will be critical for Sony, since many will want to explore how to use MobileRead and other content sources and use the open source option to customize their systems.
Sony is opening the door widely in terms of accessing the new Readers. They will be available online, through electronic giants such as Best Buy, booksellers such as Borders, as well as mass-market retailers such as Costco, Target, Staples, and Walmart. Sony readers are also sold at Amazon and other outlets on the web.
Two Different Perspectives on the Consumer Marketplace
All of this creates an interesting challenge for the market front-runner, Amazon. Where Amazon is focusing on creating unique, compelling partnerships to tightly bundle content with the Kindle, Sony is taking the open access approach: The Readers allow you to store and view any files from your computer for on-the-go access. Sony has created a flexible, open source tool that allows for easy porting of existing documents or files into the Sony format. Sony's stance on DRM and EPUB draws an important line in the sand for Amazon: "Buyer beware" versus Big Brother.
Amazon, which makes its bread and butter off the sale of second-party content, is caught in a difficult place. It can go open source and bite the hands that currently feeds it or spin off the Kindle and continue to operate Amazon as a general e-tailer. Sony, on the other hand, has far more experience in the consumer electronics marketplace and is positioning its Readers as stand-alone systems, building in flexibility to meet whatever needs or interests their potential buyers might have.
In a recent Forrester Research market report on ebook readers (http://blogs.forrester.com/consumer_product_strategy/2009/08/forrester-new-ereader-data-suggests-amazon-vulnerability.html), Sarah Rotman Epps argues that the pricing needs to fall to under $100. The possibility of this seems remote, especially at this stage of this developing niche product. Ebook reader companies have little motivation to cannibalize profits in this infant business. Perhaps with a larger consumer market and greater competition, prices will fall-but we aren't there yet.
The marketplace for books-electronic or print-is very different from computer games or music. "If I buy 10 songs today, I might listen to all of them immediately and be ready to buy 10 more tomorrow," notes Simba's Norris. "Very few people consume books rapidly enough to justify buying a dedicated device. There already is an iPod of books, and it's called a bookstore."
Competition from other vendors and other evolving products is another wildcard. Apple is expected to be making highly anticipated new product announcements along with the reappearance of Steve Jobs as company spokesman in early September. Will some type of enhanced tablet or other device that can be used to view books be announced? What impact might this have on the market? Stay tuned!