Sony's New Reader, Old Mindset

So, Sony's got a nicer version of its book reading gadget. That's nice. But unless it's an iPhones level "wow" it's not going to work. And even then, it's still not going to work, for similar reasons to why the iPhones didn't: Closed device, limited network, proprietary mindset.

A friend and very smart person about all kinds of stuff in this realm, Peter Meirs, Director of Alternative Media Technologies at Time Inc., told me yesterday about an ad he saw at his local commuter station for the Sony Reader, touting the fact that you could carry "30 books" on the plane with you. That's nice, but who wants to carry 30 books? For a long enough flight, I want a book or two, a couple magazines, some audio, chance to do my email, attack a spreadsheet, write up a couple of blog entries… all of which I can do on a laptop, or these days even for the most part on my smartphone. Heck (as I showed Peter), I can carry a book or two on the SD card that fits on my handheld, which is a two-year-old HP iPaq with Windows Mobile. Not only that, but I can get the books in a number of different formats, even sometimes, copy-protected ones. I can certainly get them on my laptop, which isn't that much more cumbersome to carry than the readers.

So, sorry Sony Reader (and by extension Amazon and anyone else). Unless you come up with a device that does a lot more than read your books (or magazine or whatever) in a proprietary format, even if it connects to the Internet to let me do it, I'm not that interested. Show me some flexible e-paper the size of a placemat, that I can fold and put in my pocket, with the functionality of a low-end laptop with browsers, that's open to many formats, that I can really customize, that allows me, also, to use VOIP, WiFi, and so on … then we're getting somewhere. Even then, not if you're going to not only make me pay $300 for the device that does less than my smartphone for the same price and also charge me almost as much for a digital book as a print one.

I'm all in favor of digital books, mind you: I would have killed for some of my cinderblock sized biz school texts to have been given to me electronically – occasionally I even ripped out chapters rather than carry the book on a plane or train. I would have loved to have been able to mark the thing up electronically, search and sort more easily, maybe grab an appropriately "fair use" amount to share with a friend or ask a classmate a question.

Maybe Sony figures they're learning and will over time adjust their model and end up with an advantage because they've played with the technology and therefore know more than others. A PR person there years ago insisted to me the Betamax wasn't a bust because of all they'd learned and been able to put into successful professional machines using offshoots of the high-quality standard. But to date it looks more like a mindset than technology problem. Someone with the right mindset has every capability of leapfrogging, if they can come up with the open, nifty, easy-to-use, multi-functional device.


Peter Meirs said...

It's amazing how little the Ebook device makers have learned since the days of the Rocket eBook and the Softbook. Half a decade later, despite the efforts of Sony and others, there is still no consumer demand for these units. It's not about how many books you can carry (unless you are a student) or how you can link, search and annotate content. It's about providing the user with a reading experience that's equal to or better than paper, combined with utility (calendar, contacts, email, phone...) and a small enough form factor to motivate a consumer to carry it around. The key to adoption is making the consumer indifferent to format (digital vs. print) within a platform that is carried as naturally as a cell phone is today.

Russell said...

Sony are clueless gits. They think that they're going to be able to sell hardware in 2007 which locks people into buying high-margin content from Sony. Look across their product line and you will see this idea repeated again and again. Proprietary + closed == failure.