Can the Sony Reader Push eBooks into the Mainstream?


Article ImageFor years, the ebook industry has been trying to bring ebooks into the mainstream, but hardware issues with the reader devices have held back widespread adoption. This could change this year when Sony debuts its reader featuring E Ink screen technology this Spring.

A key differentiator for Sony's device is the use of E Ink screen technology, which is a big leap forward from previous ebook readers, according to Nick Bogarty, executive director at the International Digital Publishing Forum, a standards association for the digital publishing industry. Bogarty says that the screen resolution on the Sony Reader (and other devices using this technology) provides a similar experience to reading a paper book. "The screen is based on E Ink technology, so the screen resolution is quite similar to paper, far better than any screens we've had on ebook reading devices in the past. There is no back lighting needed and the screen doesn't constantly refresh, so to the eyes it's very much like ink on a piece of paper."

Bogarty also notes that the fact that the screen does not have to constantly refresh has the added advantage of dramatically improving battery life. In fact, Sony claims that the Reader can sustain up to 7,500 continuous page turns on a single charge. What's more, measuring 6.9"x4.9"x5", with 6" display, and weighing approximately 9 oz., the device feels similar to a paperback book. The Sony Reader comes with 64MB of memory on board with slots for a memory stick and SD card available. Sony claims the onboard memory is enough to hold about 80 ebooks. Bogarty, who has seen a device first-hand, says at the projected price point, it has a lot of potential. "For someone who consumes a lot of books or for someone who commutes or travels a lot, and at the price point, which is expected to be between $300 and $400, it's really compelling, really an impressive little piece of hardware," he says.

In conjunction with its Reader, Sony plans to open an online content store called the Connect Store, based on a model similar to that of Apple's iPod and the iTunes store. Users will maintain a library locally and be able to connect to the online store and purchase books from a variety of mainstream publishers for approximately 60% less than their print counterparts, but the Reader will not be limited to just ebooks. Users will also be able to read other file types on the device such as PDFs and even digital pictures, music files, or news and blogs from RSS feeds. "First of all, Reader has utility beyond digitized books, incorporating features that permit consumers to download and read personal documents and capture Internet content. As a result, users can carry around a wide variety of reading materials, including books, Internet content, and personal/business files in one small device," says Ron Hawkins, VP of Sony Electronics.

Sony hopes to offer thousands of titles when the store goes live this spring, but Bogarty says ebook titles haven't been the problem. "Content has been there. All the major trade publishers release works in ebook form. If you look at the New York Times print best-seller list, probably 70% or so of it is also available in electronic form," he says. What's held back the industry until now, he says, is the hardware. "I think the hardware is one of the things that has been holding back large growth in the industry. I certainly think the Sony Reader will help take it to the next level—but it depends on how you define the next level."

Bogarty thinks the Sony Reader has great market potential, but cautions against making comparisons with Apple's wildly successful iPod. "I think it's highly dangerous for anyone, including Sony, to make any comparison to iPod types of reach. I would be incredibly surprised if something like that happened because that kind of reach, as far as digital media [is concerned], has happened to only one device, and that's the iPod. I don't think [the Sony Reader] is going to explode the industry, but could it double or triple the industry? Yes, possibly. But I would be careful to say that this is the iPod of ebooks."