Sony’s E-reader opens up, sort of

The buzz in the e-book world is all about Sony’s announcement this week of its forthcoming support for a more open standard of e-books, called “e-pub”:

From Gizmodo:

A firmware update scheduled to drop later this week will allow Sony Readers to use the .epub format, an open standard (with DRM support) that has the backing of several major book publishers. This means you’ll be able to get books from sources other than Sony’s own Connect store, which currently only has one third the titles of Amazon’s Kindle store. The Kindle, however, currently uses the Mobipocket format for its Kindle Store books, and does not yet support .epub.

More from PCWorld:

…EPUB. It is known more technically as “the International Digital Publishing Forum’s XML-based standard format for reflowable digital books and publications.” Many book publishers apparently are already publishing upcoming ebooks in this format and this is something Sony wants to capitalize on by making the Reader the first device of its type to support this. The Reader model PRS-505, starting next month, will be able to let users access ebooks in the EPUB format. It will also support, said Sony, Adobe ebooks with DRM protection as well as “the capability to reflow standard text-based Portable Document Format (PDF) eBooks for improved flexibility and readability.” These Adobe updates will be possible with the use of Adobe Digital Editions 1.5 software.

[For an earlier discussion of this standard, see my May 19 Post]

To paraphrase another, admittedly more significant milestone, that took place nearly forty years ago this week, “That’s one small step for a reader, one giant leap for e-books.”

Adopting an open format can only help accelerate the range of choices for readers, which in turn will help drive demand for more titles, and other documents that could be stored on an e-reader. Note that the E-pub standard allows for DRM to be applied after the conversion process, which makes it up to the publisher whether the content is protected or not.

It remains to be seen whether Amazon’s rumored Kindle 2.0 will support this standard. One piece of information was notably absent from all the hoopla around the Sony announcement this week. Sony recently made a major announcement about their corporate strategy and it contained the following quote:

Ensure that 90% of our electronics product categories are network-enabled and wireless-capable by the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011 (“FY2010”)

No mention this week about when the Sony Reader will have this capability. To my mind, this is the feature that most differentiates Sony’s reader from the Kindle. Despite Kindle’s less than elegant form factor and interface, the ability to download content wirelessly, at no extra cost, puts it miles ahead of anything else in the category. When does Sony plan to incorporate the wireless feature into their reader? (The PSP already has it, and so do a couple of their TVs.) Until they do, they will remain a distant second in the e-reader world, despite their adoption of a more open format of e-books.

Ars Technica asks: “What about the kids?”

In an opinion piece posted July 20 on Ars Technica, Don Reisinger continues to feed the rumor mill about new versions of the Kindle coming this fall and next year (first reported by Crunchgear on July 15). It’s interesting how a story based on an unnamed source (a search on the string ” Kindle 2.0 Coming Around October 2008″ returns over 68000 hits) can instantly become fact as its frequency of cites climbs).

After addressing a few of the current version’s shortcomings, Reisinger goes on to discuss the college textbook market:

So far, Amazon has yet to capitalize on the $5.5 billion textbook market, even though its Kindle seems tailor-made for such a move. Considering the fact that most students are forced to pay at least $100 for a textbook that they need to lug around campus, the future revenue possibilities of offering textbooks at a deeply discounted price to be run on the Kindle are simply huge. Amazon must be aware of that fact, because just a few weeks ago the company announced that it has inked a deal with Princeton to start selling all of its textbooks on the Kindle store for use on the device. The University joined Yale, Berkeley, and Oxford in its support for the Kindle. But Amazon can’t just stop there. In the next iteration of the device, Amazon needs to actively seek out textbook manufacturers and entice them to offer their books in the Kindle store. Upon doing so, Amazon will immediately put its reader in the hands of millions of college students whose parents don’t mind spending $359 on a device that’s specifically designed to stop them from text messaging and keep them studying.

In the immortal words of Smokey Robinson, I Second that Emotion. But as the folks from Amazon go about researching the consumer side of the market, they might want to check out some of the comments posted to the following item on Gizmodo:

…allowing students to bypass the used book store and directly download their textbooks onto their Kindles. You’ll save a few bucks for the digital version, plus shipping costs and shipping time. And if you figure out a way to hack it, that’s like, free textbooks dude. Whoa. We see this extended to concerned parents of elementary school kids who’ve been complaining about how many textbooks they have to lug from home to school and back.

Some (edited for language) comments follow:

This is great. Several years ago, I had the idea of buying my textbooks, scanning them onto my 12″ Powerbook and then returning them for a full refund. The scanning ended up being too tedious and I gave up. ******* expensive textbooks.

The thing that pissed me off in highschool about the books was that we didnt use them every day, and were expected to have them, and the year would go by and we’d ignore 80% of each book. books are just crappy, heavy, portable chunks of outdated wikipedia

Or here’s another novel idea. Publishers, sell books by the chapter as well as the entire book a la iTunes with music. That way, not only would we save money, we’ll only see the chapters that we’ll actually use.

This is the only reason I would ever get a Kindle, and if I could get the ebooks for less than $140 a pop. it sure would beat lugging a bunch of books around.

Yeah, all the textbook makers are really happy about it – the pricing’s gonna be $20 cheaper (off a $200 textbook), but it also means everyone who buys one, buys it. No abilty to sell it back or buy a used copy.Used bookstores are a godsend for students, as is selling back your old textbooks. Naturally, all publishers are irked by this. Countermeasure one is the new edition every term, thus making resale of old texts less than worthwhile (except if you have an enlightened prof who supports old editions).But digital books? Perfect! No resale value, no used bookstore to compete with…