Sony unveiled its new e-reader yesterday–along with its strategy for positioning its tongue within the Tower of eBabel against rival formats.

“The Sony Reader”
reportedly will cost $299-$399 and go on sale around March or April. I agree with Alex at MobileRead. The competing iLiad from iRex Technologies “is bigger and heavier. But it also features the better screen, better support for open formats, and better connectivity.” I’ll get to the format-related issues in more depth. But first the basics from PC World:

The Reader, which Sony expects to ship in April with a price tag between $299 and $399, [is]…only slightly taller and wider than most best-selling paperbacks–and no more than half as thick. You flip open a cover to a screen that shows one page at a time using electronic-ink technology from a company named E Ink. You turn pages by pressing a button; you can also enlarge the text up to 200 percent, a boon for vision-impaired readers.

Trouble is, enlarging the text isn’t enough. It needs to flow, so that people don’t have to scroll horizontally. Even if the Sony offers flowability, the next question is whether the format will work on a wide range of devices from rival hardware vendors. The other thing I’m curious about is whether PC World is talking about Sony’s own format or some form of PDF.

PC World also says:

Sony says the Reader’s E Ink displays can produce four scales of grey at a resolution of about 170 pixels per inch–more than twice that of most conventional displays, and roughly on a par with the resolution of newsprint.

That still leaves open the contrast question. I sold my Librie in part because the contrast between text and background was so much worse than on regular paper–or the LCD screens I use.

As for how Sony plans to popularize its Broad Band eBook (BBeB) format, Sven Neuhaus on the Librie list says:

Sony will open up the specs of the BBeB format! They hope this will lead to development of more tools to generate content in BBeB format (both with and without DRM). Developers who are interested in this should get in touch with me.

It is laudable for Sony to “open up” the specs, but as with PDF, the specs presumably will still be in control of just one company, a contrast to a truly open approach.

What’s more, the existence of another format in the Tower of eBabel will make life still more difficult for libraries, independent e-stores and for publishers. The best solution remains a move to a nonproprietary XML/CSS-based format, so that, as with audio CDs, customers can just play away without worrying about the eBabel factor.

Another issue is the strictness of the DRM. Following the great outcry against the Librie’s books that vanished after 60 days, Sony may actually have learned. Sven says: “Books are ‘pay-to-own,’ no time bomb. Sony handles the payment for the publishers. You can view the books on up to 6 devices that you have registered with the Sony store. At launch however, you will not be able to transfer or lend those protected books you bought to your friends who also have a Sony Reader with their own Sony online store account.”

Needless to say, although Sony’s American flavor of DRM is friendlier toward consumers than the kind used in the Japanese-targeted Librie, it is a long way from the variety that OpenReader will use. OpenReader work on as many of the consumers’ own machines as publishers will allow–in fact, an unlimited number if content owners don’t object. Let the market, not a company like Sony, decide that one! What’s more, there can be arrangements for sharing with friends without their paying–one way to promote new books. Perhaps there could be timed expiration or one-machine-at-a-time use–not to mention OpenReader’s capability to allow selective DRM throughout the book, rather than restricting readers to one-chapter-at-a-time previews. If I had my druthers, OpenReader would come with no DRM. But then the big publishers wouldn’t want it. So our solution will be to offer a robust but gentler kind than, say, Sony’s; and our DRM will bemore flexible as well. While we’ll act in good faith, no DRM system is perfect, and in fact, given the ease of scanning and bootlegging paper books, serious questions exist about the DRM concept, period.

Meanwhile, ahead, I’ll reproduce a few more details from Sven’s post, followed by a link collecton and the Sony news release.

–Faster screen than the Librie. Same size and resolution.

–Native support for PDF, TXT, RTF, MP3, JPG and of course BBeB. PDF support includes zooming (it may even rewrap text).

–Strong RSS support integrated into PC client software. Generates unprotected BBeB files from your choice of RSS feeds that you can then transfer to and read on your Sony Reader.

–Online store integrated into PC client software.

–Most major US publishers onboard, (10,000+ titles at launch). Books are “pay-to-own”, no time bomb. Sony handles the payment for the publishers. You can view the books on up to 6 devices that you have registered with the Sony store. At launch however, you will not be able to transfer or lend those protected books you bought to your friends who also have a Sony
Reader with their own Sony online store account.

–Sony will open up the specs of the BBeB format! They hope this will lead to development of more tools to generate content in BBeB format (both with and without DRM). Developers who are interested in this should get in touch with me.

–It’s still Linux based.

–No touch screen, no wireless (SD card slot is probably not SD IO capable). Bummer.

–Available for purchase around March/April.

Sven accurately concludes: “Looks to me like Sony learned from the previous mistakes of the Librie.”

But the issue here is the extent to which Sony has learned. And the publishing industry, too. Do publishers, who’ve spent many years developing common production standards, really want to entrust consumer standards to Sony–especially when they’re so fussy about the control of content per se? And what about such issues as the price of the DRM? What is it now, and what will it be in the future?

Meanwhile, here’s a list of other links, followed by a Sony news release, so that the releases can be part of the permanent record here and so people can judge for themselves:

Sony’s new e-book reader officially announced (MobileRead).

A Reuters reporter’s blog.

Engadget article, with a photo suggesting that the Sony machine’s screen is a long way from the black and white of paper. Comments an Engadget reader: “That thing is looking awfully 1998.” Says another: “Two years from now, they’ll be hard to sell on Craigslist.”

An enthusiastic Gizmodo article.

OK, now here’s the Sony news release mentioned earlier.

Ground-breaking Technology, Seamless Service and a Broad Range of Available Content Combine to Revolutionize Reading

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 4 /PRNewswire/ — (CES Booth #14200) — Destined to transform the electronic reading experience, the lightweight Sony(R) Reader is expected to bring a whole new meaning to “book smart.”

Coupling an innovative electronic paper display with precise one-handed navigation and a stylish, durable design, the Sony Reader will allow active readers to carry as much as they want to read whether they are traveling on the road or just around the corner.

Roughly the size of a paperback novel, but thinner than most (about .5 inches thin), the device can store hundreds of books in internal memory with the addition of an optional Memory Stick(R) or Secure Digital (SD) flash memory card.

The Reader can also store and display personal documents in Adobe PDF format, favorite web content like blogs or news feeds, and JPEG photos. With a seemingly limitless battery life equivalent to roughly 7,500 page turns, avid readers can devour a dozen bestsellers plus War and Peace without ever having to recharge.

“In recent years millions of people have become comfortable downloading and enjoying digital media, including eBooks. But until now, there has not been a good device on which to read,” said Ron Hawkins, senior vice president of Personal Reader Systems marketing at Sony Electronics. “Our research has shown that people are looking for a device designed exclusively for immersive reading. The Sony Reader with its electronic paper display, thin format and extraordinary battery life fits the bill.”

Paper-Like Display

Part of the magic behind the Reader’s viewing experience is the high-resolution electronic paper display technology, which delivers a realistic print look that rivals traditional paper. The result is readable text and graphics from a variety of viewing angles, even outdoors in bright sunlight. Since there is no backlight, readers will not experience the fatigue associated with long term reading on an LCD. And, as the technology renders each page as a static image, there is no flicker or constant screen refresh to add to eyestrain.

Users with impaired or limited eyesight will enjoy the Reader’s fully adjustable text size, which can be magnified or reduced on demand.

Connect to Thousands of Titles

Sony Connect(R) will support the launch of the Sony Reader by providing an online store integrated into an easy-to-use desktop application called the Connect Reader. The software will allow users to search and browse through thousands of downloadable eBooks, manage purchased eBooks and easily transfer them to the Sony Reader device. At the outset, the Connect Store will offer a broad selection of fiction and non-fiction, bestsellers, well-known authors, classics and more, with rich descriptive content in the form of author biographies, expert book reviews and reader commentary.

Additionally, the Connect Store will offer online content sourced via RSS (Really Simple Syndication).

“Reading books is a vital part of the overall reading experience, which also increasingly consists of written content from online news sources, blogs and other forms of web content,” said Lee Ali Shirani, vice president of Sony Connect. “Connect will allow users to take eBooks, news feeds and other online media and enjoy that portably, thereby making the Reader the portable device for all things text.”

Major Support from Publishers

Booklovers will applaud the broad selection of eBooks already available for purchase and download to the Reader device. Many of the world’s leading book publishers, including Random House, HarperCollins Publishers, Penguin-Putnam, Simon & Schuster and Time Warner Book Group will support Sony’s e-reading initiative.

Many independent and specialty publishers will also have eBook titles available for purchase and download to the Sony Reader. Manga comics and graphic novels from innovative houses such as TOKYOPOP are rendered beautifully on the device and will also be available for download.

The Sony Reader will be available in the U.S. this spring and can be purchased at select retailers, online at or at SonyStyle(R) stores ( in high-end fashion malls around the country. More information about Sony Reader is available at

The proprietary mindset in action: Regardless of Sony’s grudging concessions to “openness,” the nature of the beast is unchanged. We’re talking about a company with a proprietary mindset and insufficient respect for open standards. Here’s what Sony’s Connect site, now selling music, told me when I accessed it with Firefox: “We appreciate your interest in the Connect music store, but our store currently only works with Internet Explorer 5.5 and above. You don’t seem to be using that particular browser at the moment, so, unfortunately, we’ll have to part ways until we support the browser you’re currently using or you upgrade to the latest version of Internet Explorer. Please click the Download link below if you’d like to upgrade now.”


  1. Well David, it surely seems they addressed one of your concerns: everthing in English! 😀

    the specs presumably will still be in control of just one company

    I don’t see how that is a problem, unless the ereaders built-in software somehow gets upgraded without your consent or knowledge (by Sony? never!).

    you will not be able to transfer or lend those protected books

    Please don’t call it protection when you mean exact opposite. Books are protected when there is no bar to their complete dissemination. DRM and copyright protect the interests of publishers, and authors, but not books. Books are burdened by this sort of “protection”.

  2. Mike Cane pointed me to this photo (at Engadget) snapped by Rick Wilkring of Reuters at CES”

    Among the comments to the item (mostly the predictable “How wonderful!” and “E-readers will never take off!”):

    “That thing is looking awfully 1998.”

    “Erf… why doesn’t that screen look like the eInk display on the Japanese-market Libre? I’m hoping that ass-nasty green is just the backlight, and also hoping they change that color to, ya know, “book white”…”

    “I wouldn’t go by the poor lighting from that photo. The screen is supposed to be like the Librie. Here is a better shot:

    “Here’s a good comparison to make in your own head, remember the difference in quality between dot-matrix printers and laser printers when lasers were brandnew? That’s e-ink versus traditional LCDs.”

    “It can also display pictures. A shot of the Librie:

  3. I’d be interested to see if and when they make an emulator available for PC. As a writer, my judge of a HW platform is the ability to create content for it.

    Perhaps a company like Sony wants to make sure that major publishers offer commercial content for their platform. Fine, I have no problem with that. But I suspect the consumer interest is generated not by whether you can download bestsellers but whether consumers can find lowcost or no cost content for it.

  4. I’ve pounded on the disadvantages of an expensive limited-feature e-reader like the Sony Reader (Can PC’s ever be e-readers? and Why are e-readers standoffish?). As I’ve said often, my own preference is for a device that is primarily an e-reader and then secondarily lets me do additional functions that I would expect from a full PC:

    • browse the webread and write email
    • play some games
    • run an essential app or two

    • read and write Word documents and/or Excel spreadsheetsoccasionally
    • listen to music
    • even more occasionally watch video

    Let me emphasize that this is my individual preference, much as I think it makes sense for others.

    That said, I want to acknowledge that the Sony Reader website photos show a crisp screen with a full page that looks like it will be a pleasure to read.

    It’s a winner if you use a single-feature comparison: page for reading.

    If I could buy an e-reader with this kind of display at a price I can afford without wincing (lower than I’d care to acknowledge :-), I would.

    I expect an Internet Tablet with a larger screen by that time, however, and if I’ve migrated to that maybe I won’t need to. But that sounds like hedging. Nice screen. I can see why people — especially e-book/e-text enthusiast readers of this blog — would want to use it.

  5. “You can view the books on up to 6 devices that you have registered with the Sony store. At launch however, you will not be able to transfer or lend those protected books you bought to your friends who also have a Sony Reader with their own Sony online store account.”

    As far as lending or transfering books to someone else – I saw who cares? I don’t exist to provide free media for my friends. They can buy their own damn stuff.

    The question about the “6” devices is more critical. iTunes makes it incredibly easy to de-authorize and re-authorize your limited number of computers. WIll Sony’s mechanism be similar, or will it be like Microsoft Reader’s where when you reach your limit, that’s it, you’re done, you don’t get no more? (I change computer hardware rather frequently as a side-effect of my job, so this issue is critical to preserving my content investment.)

    As far as re-wrapping PDF files when zoomed, the answer right out of the gate is “it depends”. Image pdf files will not, obviously. Tagged files are capable of it, assuming the reader implements the feature. Sony would be incredibly stupid if they did not.

  6. I wonder if Sony will let other stores sell content and if they will allow stores to sell the device with a subscription to pay for it. Similar to the way ebooks sells the old ETI-2 they are selling it for $19.95 a month for 12 months. That is the way the cost of Cell Phones came down. For size comparison the ETI-2 has the same screen size.

  7. –It’s still Linux based.

    I understood that this this required the software to be opened up. And if so why are they making a big thing of saying they are opening up the format. Bein Linux should open the source code anyway.

  8. […] Sony Reader in the press If anyone wonders if people care about an e-book reader, one only has to do a Google search on "Sony Reader" and follow your nose just a little bit. Reading through the results that come up is enough to convince the biggest skeptic that the world really does have a lot of interest in the devices. To save you some time, I’m compiling a long list of some of the links and information that comes up, with a snippet or summary included. As you await the expected release of the device, enjoy the excitement! Sony is the featured customer for this e-ink spec page "Destined to transform the electronic reading experience, the lightweight Sony

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail