Sony - a company that has struggled to establish itself as a dominant player in the world of ebook readers - is anxious to remind you that the ebook market is still in its infancy and that the Amazon Kindle is far from winning the battle. In fact, Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading business division, thinks Jeff Bezos and co. have made some critical mistakes.
Speaking this week at an ebook-obsessed conference in New York, Haber was quick to point out that Sony marketed an ebook reader well before the Kindle was even a twinkle in Amazon’s eye. The electronics company launched an ereader in Japan back in 2003 and debuted a device in the US in 2006.
When asked about Amazon’s big splash with the Kindle, Haber sounds more than a tad defensive. Reaching into his bag of corporate clichés, he says that "competition drives innovation." He makes a valid point, however, when he says that the Kindle has helped to legitimize the ereader market, opening the door for other outfits to establish themselves.
Amazon is all wrong
In Haber's mind, Amazon's device has more than a few shortcomings. For starters, Sony is backing a more open platform that allows users to pick their readers and pick their market place. The Sony Reader supports numerous formats, including the ePub standard. Kindle, on the other hand, uses a proprietary format and locks you into shopping with Amazon. "Exclusive and proprietary, that is a concern," he says, alluding to Amazon.
Haber is also critical of Amazon’s approach to pricing. The web giant sells all of its ebooks with a $9.99 price tag. "It’s a value equation. It’s not price," says Haber. "There is no sweet spot. Locking in on a specific price point doesn’t make any sense." He goes as far as to say it’s just not profitable to sell ebooks for $9.99.
And so he argues that Amazon’s market dominance is fragile - though he avoids actually acknowledging that market dominance. He predicts the market will shift as more buyers and more options enter the marketplace.
Some of Sony’s confidence must come from having a certain world power Gin its corner. Sony has worked closely with Google to offer hundreds of thousands of free titles in the Sony’s ebook store. And now Google, another supporter of the ePub format, is getting close to launching its own store, dubbed Google Editions.
But there's no shortage of people howling over Google's ebook ambitions. People cite the company’s dominance in the search market, which provides a built in ability to drive people to its own bookstore. And there's that tumultuous past the publishing world - not to mention a propensity for rewriting copyright law to suit its own needs.
Sony, however, is happy to see the search giant become an ebook retailer. Haber says Google’s platform is "super open and it ties in very well to the reader experience we’re looking for." Surely, Google driving traffic to its own ePub-friendly books would be a nice boost for Sony. But he acknowledges there's is a certain dependency.
"As long as they stay an open platform, we’re happy to work with them. If that ever changes, we’ll have to make a different decision." So far, he says, the relationship has worked well. We can only imagine how Sony would feel if Google were to launch its own device — a notion that isn’t out of the question now that Google has built its own phone.
A Word of Advice
What of the publishers and writers, who still show a certain hesitation when it comes to the idea of ebook? Haber has little history in the book world - he’s been at Sony for 21 years working primarily in consumer electronics - but he still believes he's the one to give them advice.
In a mocking tone, Haber gibes at publishing companies who have delayed the release of ebook titles. Simon & Schuster, for instance, recently said it may not make digital versions of books available until the hardcover copies have been on shelves for four months. This is similar to the delayed release of paperback versions. "f you don’t allow the content out there, people will find a way to get that content," Haber says. He adds that publishers cause piracy by delaying the release of books in digital formats and that their businesses will prosper if they embrace ebooks.
When asked what writers and publishers can do to help promote the growth of an ebook market and their own books, he suggests that they "spend time using the devices out there, experience them, and then think about what you can do differently with digital content that you couldn’t do with physical content." He tells authors they should "think through, perhaps, how you could make your content more interactive." Finally, the perfect platform for the Choose Your Own Adventure books.
Home for the (Orthodox) Holidays
Sony currently has two models in its line of ebook readers: the Pocket and the Touch. Sony is also hawking a brand new model, dubbed the Daily Edition. The new device adds 3G wireless support for buying books, offers a higher screen resolution than the other models, and increases the screen size from 6 inches to 7 inches.
The Daily Edition is so new that it isn’t actually available yet, but that hasn’t stopped Sony from selling it for the holidays (the ones we’re in the midst of). The online Sony Style store, which is taking orders, says available "on or about" December 18. On another page of the Sony Style site, it says pre-orders will ship December 18 through January 8 - though "actual delivery date cannot be guaranteed." Just in time for Russian Orthodox Christmas!
When asked about availability, Haber wouldn’t confirm that Sony will ship in time for the holidays. Instead, he was evasive. "We are focusing on getting it out for Christmas.” When pressed further on whether it will actually ship by Christmas, he just repeated “we’re focused on that." But he clearly left open the possibility that the Daily Edition won’t arrive in time.
Haber can talk all he wants about open formats, but leaving people with empty packages at the holidays is a sure way to lose customers. Just like Barnes and Noble. ®