Sony, Sony – wherefore art thou?

 

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The “big” news ebook reading devices recently has been Amazon’s new Kindles with their Pearl screen. OK, ebookers got the point: Amazon is moving right along in its attempt to capture the wallets of all ebookers. Which raises the question, here in the United States, “Sony, Sony (and Barnes & Noble, as well) — Wherefore art thou?”

Not a hint, not a misspoken word, not anything leaked to eBookland about a response by Sony and/or B&N to Amazon’s new Kindles. I, for one, am desperately seeking solace, especially from Sony, that there will be new competitive devices forthcoming. As I have made clear in prior articles, I am not a willing Amazon (or Apple) buyer.

But I need to know that my expectations will be met. I love my Sony PRS505 reader. It’s now 2.5 years old and works as well as the day I received it as a holiday gift. It has never been repaired and never failed to delight. My wife waits in the wings to take it over as soon as I buy a new reading device, and my credit cards are itching to be used to do so.

(For what it’s worth, I am also pleased with the service I have received from the Sony Reader eBook Store. A few weeks ago I bought the second and third volumes of Brian Ruckley’s Godless World Trilogy only to discover that the type size couldn’t be enlarged and the fixed size was much too small for my eyes. I assumed it was a publisher problem so I e-mailed the Hachette Book Group this past Sunday, with a copy of my receipt for the books, asking them to fix the problem. On Monday I received a response saying they had checked the original files and could find nothing to cause the problem so they had contacted Sony and asked Sony to check it and contact me. On Wednesday I received a telephone call from Sony saying the problem had been fixed and I needed to redownload the books, which I did. Kudos to both Hachette and Sony. Now, back on track…)

What I have been waiting for is a device with an 8- or 9-inch screen from a company that I think will be around for more than a week or two. Everyone and everyone’s aunt is producing 6-inch screen e-ink devices, and if that is all that Sony or B&N are going to produce, I will not buy a new device until my 505 dies; I’m not looking to buy a new device just for the sake of buying a new device.

I want that larger screen so I can switch my New York Times subscription from print to electronic and read it comfortably. For me, this is the driver behind my desire for a new device. And no, I do not want a multifunction LCD screen device. I already own several.

The situation is this: Amazon is king of the hill right now. It has the leading device and bookstore and gains ground every day. B&N desperately needs to at least maintain its market share and preferably grow it in the one growth area in publishing — ebooks. Every day it remains silent about device plans and every day that passes without a new device becoming available (at least for preorder) is another day that Amazon increases its market lead.

Sony, which isn’t noted for its ebookstore but is noted for its quality electronics, will soon take on the mantle of Wile E. Coyote in the ebook reading device tug-of-wars unless it does two things: First, is put out a firmware update for all of its already sold and available devices that updates the ePub DRM schema. Sony owners need to know that Sony is not asleep and that it is committed to the ePub standard and the way to do this is to release an update that will allow Sony owners to access the B&N ebookstore without stripping DRM. This is the easy fix to owner anxieties for Sony.

Second, it needs to “leak” to the press and the blogosphere information about any forthcoming e-reading devices. Get the buzz going; give ebookers a reason to hold off purchasing a new Kindle. It doesn’t need to be a full-blown, detailed initial announcement but it needs to be sufficient to maintain interest. Perhaps a leak-a-week until the big news event.

The strength of Amazon is in its ebookstore, not in its Kindle. The Kindle simply provides a means to access Amazon’s strong point. Sony’s strength is in its electronic devices, its readers, not in its ebookstore. The ebookstore simply gives Sony Reader owners a place to make use of the device. But unlike Amazon, which craftily takes advantage of its strength, Sony turns its strength into a weakness by being so rigid in its information release schedule. Sony needs to loosen up — especially now that the new Kindles are available and have been getting good press.

B&N needs to find its footing. Contrary to its corporate “wisdom,” releasing its ebooks in ePub form but adding its own flavor of DRM was not a smart move in B&N’s fight against the Amazon behemoth. By adding that flavoring, B&N gave Amazon at least a year’s free ride to build sales share. We will never know with certainty, but I’d bet that had B&N emulated Sony in terms of ePub and DRM flavor, B&N’s ebook market share would be at least 25% higher than it currently is. The battle would have been truly joined between B&N and Amazon and Sony’s ebookstore would be drifting into a netherworld.

Sony needs to regain momentum and spark interest in its products. It needs to immediately begin leaking information about forthcoming products to prevent ebooker defection to the new Kindles. B&N needs to get its act together in nearly every sense, and it, too, needs to begin leaking information about its plans. If they do not maintain ebooker interest in their respective products, it will soon be too late and it will be an Amazon world.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog

29 Comments on Sony, Sony – wherefore art thou?

  1. Richard Askenase // August 12, 2010 at 10:20 am //

    Rich- let’s face it: B & N and Sony CAN’T match Amazon and won’t. The Amazon bookstore, as you properly note, is unsurpassed. No other store is CLOSE to 650,000 ebook titles (NOT including public domain). And the new Pearl screen is gorgeous (on my DX). And the constant 2010 software updates have continued the Kindle’s huge lead.

    Sony and B&N are nowhere. they are silent (especially Sony) because they don’t have an answer that will really compete. they will probably get the Pearl screen, but that moves them closer not past Amazon. The the Sony store is a joke. They really aren’t comitted to selling ebooks- similar to Apple (only 30,000 in the iBookstore).

    So stop wishing for won’t happen. Forget your political antipathy to Amazon and get the new Kindle 3. You won’t regret it.

  2. Alexander Inglis // August 12, 2010 at 10:38 am //

    I have a Kindle 3 on order; but the new Pearl screen is a deal-breaker. I have the “improved through firmware” Kindle 2 and the not improved Kobo — both 6″ e-ink screens and the image quality is excellent in both. I did notice the improvements in the Kindle 2; I expect the Kindle 3 will be “50% more contrast better”. The point is, the B&N and Sony screens with “old” e-ink are not heavily disadvantaged.

    I disagree that “leaks” is what is needed. What is needed is action. B&N will be expanding Nook visibility drastically next month with 40ft x 25ft display kiosks in 700+ stores. Sony? Phhhffttt! How about announcing a new model and date? Oct 1 is not too late to catch the Xmas selling season.

    You are right that without a compelling reason to upgrade, current Sony customers won’t … at least, not to Sony. The “always connected” aspect of the new Kindles (and, in fact, of all Kindles) is a more significant barrier than Pearl. And, for that, Sony apparently has no counter.

  3. I heard Sony was working on an LCD tech based reader for the educational market (so I assume bigger than 6″). A few months ago they were aiming for September 2010 announcements. They seemed to think colour e-ink wasn’t mature enough to use yet. I got the sense they were still working on e-ink for novel type reading, but the team I was talking to was on the education side of the business.

    LCD strikes me as old school, the only advantage being they can rapidly switch to oled if it got cheaper, or maybe mirasol type tech – with little underlying hardware mod. They can keep all the work put into the interface etc.

  4. Sony took a big risk as the first company to actually bring an e-ink device to market. Unfortunately I have a sense that Sony’s culture may be working against its progress. From Day 1 the Readers were Sony Corp’s de facto red-headed stepchild. It was all but hidden on the Sony website, and the ad campaign to support the tech was little more than lip-service — small posters at my city’s main train station was all I ever saw. The sole advantage of the early Readers over print was the weight factor. No on-board search capability was provided for. No annotation, no underlining. If anyone at Sony was paying any attention at all to *how people read and use books*, they were not given the support to develop the right tools for the device until Amazon brought its research and insight into the game. And even now, the only advantage of the Sony is that one can buy books from more different stores. For those of us who read languages other than English, this is an important advantage. If one is reading only English, who really cares? I’d like to see Sony do something as well, but at this point it’s possible that only crumbs of their lunch remain.

    I am a Kindle owner, but am not uncritically ga-ga over Amazon. E-reading was an experiment I wished to participate in — and when I looked at my real-life buying habits, I saw that Amazon had been my ‘go to’ since they instituted free shipping on orders >$25. On top of that, they give the user a full 30 days to return the Kindle for a full refund — for any reason. Using my rule of buying the best functionality available as of the day of purchase, the Kindle was a no-brainer.

    It’s not out of whack to think that Amazon could become the AT&T of the book world if it gains too much market share. But like my own *long* relationship with AT&T, nothing need be forever. After 30 years of hating AT&T, I dumped them last month. All e-book other suppliers need to do, is what Amazon did back in the mid-90’s. Differentiate themselves from the others in a way that appeals to the customer, and be compatible with as many affordable devices/apps as possible.

  5. Sometimes things are exactly what they appear to be.

    If it seems like Sony has nothing new to offer, it might just be because they don’t have anything new to offer.

    Let’s not forget than then Sony introduced their current readers, last year, we knew of it ahead of time because the manuals showed up online in *july*. The Touch edition shipped in october but the manuals were at the FCC site in July. Which makes sense as it takes three months to get anything through FCC.
    This year?
    Quite a few things have shown up in FCC site trawls but nothing from Sony.
    And let’s not forget that when Sony announced they were going to restart reader sales in Japan the obvious question “Would they be new models?” was answered in the negative; it would be the same Touch and Daily editions.
    The only Sony-related news since the baseline reset, almost two months ago, have been the announcement that the US-based reader group in California is looking to hire Android programmers. Well, and the announcement that they would *not* be dropping prices any further.

    Sometimes, companies stay silent simply because they have nothing to say or what they have to say is not good. And in this case there is one very disturbing possibility: Pearl might very well be Kindle-exclusive. Maybe temporarily, maybe indefinitely…

    It’s been over a month since the first Pearl Kindles were announced. And nobody—neither Sony nor anybody else—has even hinted that they will be shipping Pearl-screen product, much less made any oficial product announcement. Dozens of Amazon competitors and *none* has anything official to say about when they might get Pearl Screen product out the door.
    I’m finding that worrisome.

    When the Vizplex screens first came out, everybody got them at the same time. Some were even slipstreamed into existing product.
    When the current-gen 16-grayscale screens came out, Amazon got them early but everybody else said they would get them later and, while it took months, they did.
    This time? Nothing. And then, there is that passage in the Kindle 3 intro Press Release that referred to Kindle-proprietary driver algorhitms…
    It’s the kind of thing that makes me wonder if perhaps Pearl Screens are simply regular 16-grayscale screens driven a wee-bit-differently. If the only difference is, in fact, that proprietary algorithm…

    Let’s be realistic: sometimes a competitor is simply better. Better at identifying what features matter most. Better at designing the product. Better at marketing it. Better at selling it. Better at executing the exact same business plan.
    Sometimes you do the best you can and you still lose.

    Sony has invested two generations of their baseline reader designs in touchscreen tech, one with lighting, no less. They built a loss-leader stripper entry model. They even built a connected reader with a taller screen ratio. All reasonable moves to compete in a market *they* pioneered. And the result is that not only is Kindle crushing them using the exact same proprietary ebook format business model Sony started out with and abandoned, they’ve been lapped by latecomer Nook with a *copy* of the exact same strategy. Ouch!

    Everybody on the Sony side harps about Amazon but the fact is Barnes & Noble has also long since zoomed past Sony with Nook even though they don’t even sell the thing outside the US.

    From where I’m sitting it looks like Sony zigged when they should’ve zagged. They deprecated the one feature that their opponents are now riding to success; the close coupling of hardware and a proprietary ebook format and bookstore.

    They tied their fate to Adobe and so far Adobe hasn’t really done much for them that they didn’t have before. They’re even taking flak for lacking a feature–a matching free reader app for smartphones and tablets–that they can’t deliver even if they wanted to.

    Frankly, I don’t see where Sony has much in the way of options left:
    – They can’t go back to an LRF-centric business model without alienating the ePub community.
    – They already said they can’t and won’t compete on price.
    – Their bookstore is lagging and inaccessible to their most devoted hardware buyers outside the US. (In fact, Kindle is available in more international markets than Sony.)
    – They can’t add features to the ebooks themselves because they control neither the format nor the content.
    – They can’t compete on ebook pricing as the Price-Fix Five have foreclosed that option.
    – And they’ve already discovered that added hardware features aren’t helping their value proposition.
    What remains? All their possible moves are blocked.
    At best Adobe will *finally* deliver B&N DRM compatibility by XMAS so Sony buyers can buy from B&N, which might make the hardware more attractive but would drive book revenue away from Sony to B&N. (Don’t think SONY HQ is going to see that as an improvement after all their investments in the bookstore.)

    Basically, Sony is being hampered by its choice of allies; Adobe, B&N, the BPHs, possibly even eInk Holdings. All are net minuses to what was a winning product. And they’re getting cloberred by the exact same business model they rejected.
    That has *got* to smart.

  6. BTW, how is it that it is Apple and not Sony selling media tablets?
    Sony owns movie studios, record companies and game studios.
    Sony makes portable gaming and portable media devices, gaming consoles, TVs, and home theater audio systems.
    Sony makes decent enough smartphones.
    Sony rents movies online, sells movies, music, games, and ebooks online.
    And Sony has nothing to answer iPad with? And likely won’t until next year? What planet do they live on?

  7. Not to mention that Sony makes very nice laptops; they consistently have good lightweight notebooks that are powerful and have gorgeous screens. But if you think Apple is expensive….

  8. Great points Felix. I would only dispute your idea that the pearl screen is simply a driver improvement that amazon has made. From the eink website, there is a clear product differentiation between vizplex and pearl which indicate that the pearl imaging film is physically different from vizplex:

    http://www.eink.com/products/matrix/High_Res_Pearl.html

  9. The new adobe software for e-reader hardware that includes support for the B&N DRM is already available.
    But Sony (and other manufacturers) have not yet released an update for their readers based on the new software.

  10. When did Adobe’s proprietary malware become part of the ePub “standard” again?

    It’s been a while since I last gave up trying to buy anything from the B&N site – have they stopped their little shell-game of selling you eReader/.pdb files if you download to your computer and only giving you an .epub if you buy it from a Nook?

  11. @MarkChan: Thanks for that link.
    The mystery persists, no?
    Why only Amazon has Pearl?

    Just speculating here: sometimes vendors finance their suppliers’ facilities. Maybe the Pearl manufacturing facility was financed with Amazon money? Because the only remaining option is that eInk is selling out its other partners. And if SiPix ever amounts to anything…

    Anyway, Kindle already has a strong market presence and brand; if they go on to add “best eink screen” to their other advantages it might just buid an insumountable lead in the eInk arena. Not game over but certainly turn it into a race for “distant number two”.

    Maybe Sony’ll just give up on eInk and transition to webpads. Maybe one built off PSP compatibility.

  12. @Felix – Your replies to this post have made me think more. I wonder if Amazon has “bought” an exclusive window of Pearlness. A while ago, it was said that Apple had basically delayed the development of of iPad alternatives from competitors simply by purchasing the majority supply of iPad screens, thus eliminating most competition by preventing them from actually being able to build devices. Perhaps Amazon put in such a large order of Pearl screens first that eink can’t even make screens for any of the competitors.

  13. It seems to me that Sony has caught a bit of the German engineering illness. Their line of readers is simply gorgeous and to some extent highly durable. Unfortunately, this style and construct comes at the price of ease of use and accessibility. It seems that in all its other products, style and construct do not clash violently with the respective products intended customer base. With e-readers they have fallen into using the same strategy when they should have thought out their software and hardware approaches a bit more thoroughly. It would appear that they should have zagged when instead they zigged; absolutely brilliant metaphor Torres! I believe that they didn’t understand that readers tend to be disproportionately either older and/or women. The 29 year old side of me loves looking at their readers aesthetically but my practical side finds everything connected to their software and user-interface decisions simply perplexing. Not a good feeling to inspire when your target demographic may be overwhelmed that feeling. My advice is for Sony to take this time and regroup, come up with something truly revolutionary. If all else fails join Amazon’s walled garden, which I can see occurring, albeit with some serious skin of Sony’s back.

  14. Now, there’s a thought: Amazon bought out all Pearl capacity?
    Not impossible.
    Amazon could have ordered up 3 million Pearl screens to be delivered 100,000 per week for the next 30 weeks. That would line up with the current estimates of Kindle sales for the rest of the year. And it just may be that’s all the Pearl screens eInk can ship.

    Another possibility is their competitors have so much old product in their pipelines they can’t announce any Pearl product without Osbourne-ing their existing inventory.

    Something odd is definitely going on. Unfortunately, those in the know aren’t talking and those of us talking don’t know. 😉

  15. Minor grammatical pet peeve: “wherefore” means why, not where.

  16. Sony lost my interest the minute they stopped making the PRS-505. A decent highly readable eInk screen in a workable size and with dependable software support and it was hackable.

    Now they were not all BAD decisions after that mind you they went with the “MORE open” Adobe format ePub standard and letting people use their Sony readers with eBooks bought outside their store.

    But the whole gamble on touch screen eInk readers and then the smaller cheaper readers and fragmenting so early in the game… Just failed to keep my interest.

    It is bad for their current customers but they have done this type of moves in the PDA market with the old Clie so no one should be too surprised.

  17. Barnes and Nobles relative lack of response is simple to understand- nobody knows who the boss will be next month. Sony and Kobo’s lack or initiative is harder to figure out.

    Could Sony or Border’s be the buyer for Barnes and Noble? That would be the only smart move I can see for them.

    Amazon should be making huge device sales gains this month… but they don’t have any devices to sell!

    I’m gonna have to give this month to Apple.

  18. @Chris Meadows: Doesn’t “why” fit the discussion better?
    Why *is* Sony in this business anyway?
    It is hardly strategic to the company…

  19. @Rich Adin: Happy now?
    http://www.sonyinsider.com/2010/08/12/new-sony-reader-ebook-devices-coming-soon/

    At last, Sony rumors!
    Two new Sony Readers incoming. One 5″ and one 6″.
    And Sony is *still* betting on touchscreens across the board.

  20. Arrggh! Get rid of the stupid touchscreen! Why compromise the readability of the device with another layer to impede visibility. I have the 505 and every sony device since has had a worse screen contrast/readability due to the touchscreen layer. Seriously, the touchscreen doesn’t add enough to the device to trade off on visibility. I will of course wait and see if the insider information is true, but if so, goodbye to sony when I upgrade in the next 6 months.

  21. Ah, but without the touchscreen, how can they charge more than Nook and Kindle? Remember, they won’t be cheaper; they made that clear.
    They have to peg their pricing on *something*.

  22. I have (had) two Sonys. PRS-500 that died one day after the warranty expired (and they wanted as much as a new prs-505 to repair it). The 505 is sitting there not being used. I take a jetbook lite (easier on my eyes) when traveling due to the fact I can replace the batteries and do not have to worry about wall warts. Read using an iPad at home now – when the kid gives it up from playing games. Sony made a really bad choice with the (Komodo?) objects for the origional ebook. My understanding is that the choice had them delaying the release for enough months that they lost momentum.

    When I was younger (in the 60’s) Sony was the brand. I met Morita several times (due to my father’s designs being used by Sony – his hearing aid was used as the basis for the first walkman amp section) – neat character, visionary, promoter. However – they do not have the buzz and seem to be going on just momentum. Poor customer service, etc. Example – I bought a Dash because I wanted a larger screen Chumby. It shipped without the standard Chumby radio apps – only TODAY, months after release did they add shoutcast.

  23. One quibble– Amazon’s strength is partly from their bookstore but also from the Kindle itself. Before there were Kindle apps on iPhones, PC, etc., the Kindle was the first eReader that worked independently of the computer. You did not need to own a computer to get books onto it. It was that ease of use that made it take off in a way that the Sony– a perfectly fine eReader– did not.

    That said, I am all for Sony coming out with new devices. Competition is a good thing.

  24. I love my Sony 505, but I hate hate hate having to deal with Digital Editions. I’m very close to stripping all the DRM from my books out of sheer frustration. ADE is Sony’s biggest weakness compared to the ease of use of Amazon’s closed system, and it’s a component they have no (or little) control over. When was the last time ADE had a significant update? If I was Sony, I would be leaning heavily on Adobe to keep improving.

    If I had some sort of assurance that I could “jailbreak” my Kindle books at a later date if I switched devices, I’d probably switch to a Kindle. The new Sony 650 mentioned in Felix’s insider link sounds promising, but it still sounds like catching up rather than leaping forward.

  25. Frode Aleksandersen // August 13, 2010 at 11:34 am //

    Preston, just strip the Kindle DRM now, and then if you ever switch later they’re all set to go.

  26. @Preston: Sony *is* playing catch up. And that is their strategy, to play the game as a close follower, not a market leader. As you point out, Sony relies on ADOBE to keep improving ADE rather than coming up with their own vision, their own software. The danger they face with that follower strategy is what they are facing now; if the new Readers are indeed coming in september, with wireless, that means they went to the FCC as finished, production-ready designs, in June. THey were designed to compete with Kindle 2, not Kindle 3; the old Nook at $259, not Nook WiFi at $149.
    They got caught designing a product for a competitive environment that no longer exists.
    A lot depends on how they price the things but their comments about not wanting to compete on price are not encouraging.
    And at some point, Sony HQ is going to ask the same thing I half-jokingly asked above: “Why is Sony in this business anyway?”
    I wonder if these might be the last Sony readers we ever see.

  27. I have a Sony Touch reader and am happy with its reading experience. No so with the Sony Library software! It does nor seem to work with Windows 7 and Sony just don’t want to know – despite numerous emails to the Sony Help “Service”.

    A recent inquiry at a Sony store (in Dublin) revealed that a new model of Sony reader was due out in November.
    Will it be radically different? Who knows but I hope Sony put some more work into their ‘beta’ Library software.

  28. Sony software has always been bad. The minidisc was held back because of it – it could have been the ipad of its’ day. Gone are the “Quality Visionary” days – I think the company peaked many years ago and is just going on momentum. No longer are people willing to pay a premium for the name like they used to.

  29. I meant ipod, not ipad. However Sony did make a minidisc based ereader many years ago.

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