Read Me

The announcement of the Sony eBook Reader, expected out this month, triggered a flurry of speculation about the ebook market. We at EContent aren't immune: We wrote about its Japanese predecessor (LIBRIé), covered its CES debut, speculated on its potential impact on the ebook market, and are angling for a review unit (as is every other media outlet on the planet). Sure, I'm interested in any delivery mechanism for digital content and the opportunity it offers as another content outlet, but damn, the new Sony Reader is just so small and hot!

I'd guess that much of the fuss about Sony's American move into the ebook market comes down to gadget lust. Sony devices always catch the eyes of gadget lovers, and when Sony throws its hat into any particular market, technophiles take notice. The notices aren't always good, though. Take Sony's ill-fated introduction of the Clié into the U.S. It was big in Japan but couldn't compete with the nearly addictive BlackBerry and increasing popularity of smart phones over here. So just because Sony deigns to enter the ebook market doesn't ensure that it will find the magical formula for success.

While not as known for its gadget-chic, France is well known as the originator of chic itself. So when Bookeen, based in Paris, France, told me its Cybook had ventured stateside, I wanted to take a look at it as well. Without a doubt, it is easy on the eyes—both externally with its sleek leatherette case, and in terms of readability. While good looking, it ain't slim. The Cybook is significantly larger than Sony's Reader (as well as most of its ebook predecessors); it is about the size and heft of a hardback book (8"x10.1"x1", 35 oz.), while Sony's Reader is about the size of a paperback (6.9"x4.8"x0.5") and weighs even less at a dainty 9 oz.—less than half of most ebook readers.

The Cybook does pack features into its pounds. The unit includes a built-in dial-up modem and a PCMI slot, which provides CompactFlash compatibility as well as the option of adding on an Ethernet or an NE2000 WiFi card. This means readers can use its "virtual keyboard" to peck out an email or do a bit of Web surfing on the touchscreen display. More importantly, the inclusion of Internet access allows readers to download books directly. The Cybook and Sony Reader, along with most other ebook devices, include USB connectivity—presuming the reader will download books to a computer, then onto the reading device of choice. And, while Sony leverages geek-aweing E-Ink technology for its black-and-white display, the Cybook features a color LCD. I've not had the opportunity to read on Sony's yet, but reports are that it is "newspaper" quality. I can personally attest to the vivid clarity of the Cybook and believe that, for certain books and certainly for images, life is better in color.

Then again, with laptop computers available in the same weight class, the Cybook may want to think about its positioning. While I find the price of the Cybook high—$399-$550, depending on options—it is still a fraction of the cost of an ultra-lightweight laptop, but the price of mini-laptops inevitably will come down. And for a road warrior, investing in a super-lightweight laptop is often worth it, particularly given the value of exponentially more memory and built-in keyboard and mouse (the Cybook doesn't allow for these, even as add-ons). Sony's wee reader will retail for about $400, and while it doesn't provide these features either, form factor may turn out to be the deciding factor.

Ultimately, it comes down to the conundrum that has baffled the ebook market since day one: who wants to carry a device dedicated to reading books? While the Cybook (and likely the Sony Reader as well) is way ahead of its predecessors in readability, who's reading? Cybook's target market, according to Michaël Dahan, one of the company's co-founders, is comprised of "heavy readers, early adopters, visually impaired people, and library patrons." He also believes that the B2B market holds promise for things like electronic documentation, training, sales-force applications, and in traditional educational environments.

While the Cybook (like the Sony Reader) supports PDF, the business documentation default, B2B users usually fall into the two extremes: laptop or PDA, which also read PDF. It is likely that French libraries would adopt a French reader, while American libraries will probably lean toward an affordable option with the most ebook format support (or at least support for their given elibrary source). At present, neither device offers Microsoft or Palm ebook format support and both feature proprietary formats (Sony likely has the edge here, given its major publishing partnerships); Cybook wisely supports the Mobipocket format, which provides a vast selection of titles.

Ultimately, though, these devices will hardly compete head-on. Sony may renew interest in the format as a whole, due to geekster hip alone, yet as the slew of dusty first-generation MP3 players demonstrates, novelty will not propel a format to iPod infamy. The difference, of course, is that MP3s already had masses of fans just waiting for the right device. Ebooks may simply have already settled on the workplace or mobile computer as their medium and the market just hasn't gotten the message.