Sony, Google Point the Way Toward a More Open Future for E-Books

10/30/09Follow @wroush

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his company’s commitment over the last couple of years to the idea of open access to digital content. As Sony fires back at the Kindle and the Nook with its own souped-up e-reading gadgets, it’s setting an example that other hardware makers and content providers would do well to study.

Haber, whose division is based in San Diego, formerly ran sales and marketing for Sony’s entire imaging and audio business. (He happens to be the brother of Stu Haber, president of IST Energy, a waste-gasification startup I profiled in January.) He was in town for the same Boston Book Festival session on “The Future of Reading” where Orwant was speaking. (The other speakers on the impressive lineup included Mary Lou Jepsen of Pixel Qi, Neil Jones of Interead, and Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive. As I reported on Saturday, Kahle used the session as the occasion to announce that the Archive will make 1.6 million free public-domain books available to children around the world who have XO Laptops from the Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation.)

Haber had brought along Sony’s entire lineup of e-reading devices: the compact, $200 Pocket Edition, which has a 5-inch e-paper display (it’s the same E Ink technology used for the Kindle, the Nook, and Sony’s previous PRS-500 and PRS-505 reading devices); the $300 Touch Edition, with a 7-inch screen and a nifty touch screen overlay that allows you to turn pages with an iPhone-like flick of a finger; and the forthcoming Daily Edition, which has a tall 10-inch screen and a built-in 3G wireless modem that allows instant book and periodical downloads. Expected to hit stores in December, the Daily Edition is the first Sony reader to get wireless connectivity, a hugely important feature that Amazon pioneered with the Kindle and Barnes & Noble copied with the Nook.

Sony Daily Edition e-book readerAfter letting me play with the gadgets, Haber explained that all three are designed to display content in a range of formats, including the open, XML-based EPUB and ACS4 formats. That means device owners will be able to read any title published in those formats, even those not sold by Sony. “Customers want access to content, number one, so it’s important, from our perspective, that they not be tied to one store,” Haber told me.

He said Sony is also in the process of overhauling its own e-book store; by the end of the year, every title it sells will have been converted from Sony’s old proprietary format, called BBeB, to EPUB and ACS4. These formats still support DRM restrictions, if book publishers request them, but they are inherently more flexible than the older formats. For example, customers of Sony’s e-book store will be able to download titles purchased at the Sony e-book store to their computers and to multiple Sony devices—in fact, they’ll be able to share a single e-book across up to 6 PCs, 6 tethered e-book devices (i.e., the Pocket and Touch Editions), and 6 wireless e-book devices (i.e., the Daily Edition).

On the Daily Edition, there’s also a cool “Library Finder” feature that will let users see instantly whether their local libraries own copies of e-books they’d like to read; if they do, and they’re not already loaned out, they can check them out instantly for up to 21 days. Try doing that on a Kindle.

I asked Haber how Sony could afford to stay in the e-book business, if it wasn’t focused on making consumers buy Sony-provided content. (The consensus among industry watchers is that Amazon sells the Kindle at a loss and hopes to make money back by selling e-books, which obviously have a much lower marginal cost.) “Our competition will do what they are going to do, but our point is continually to allow access, as long as it’s within the rights specified by the publishers,” Haber answered.

Consumer pressure will force more e-book distributors to move to open formats over time, Haber believes. He uses an interesting analogy for the current situation in the e-book market: “It’s like going to the mall with your friends, and one of your friends says, … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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